Detecting Drowsy Drivers

By Dori Meinert Oct 1, 2011
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Researchers from Harvard Medical School and Harvard School of Public Health may have found a practical way to detect commercial drivers at high risk of falling asleep due to sleep apnea. The findings could have applications for other safety-sensitive jobs as well.

In a study published online by the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, the researchers reported promising results from their use of the psychomotor vigilance test, a 10-minute test of attention, alertness and reaction time. The test is performed on a hand-held computer, and the results can be easily read and interpreted.

Individuals with untreated obstructive sleep apnea are up to seven times more likely to be involved in a crash. The prevalence of obstructive sleep apnea is considerably higher among commercial drivers than the general population. A major risk factor for sleep apnea is obesity, and as many as half of commercial drivers are obese, the researchers say.

"While obesity is a good marker, some of the drivers and their advocates see that as discriminatory," says the study’s senior author, Dr. Stefanos N. Kales, division chief and medical director of employee and industrial medicine at Cambridge Health Alliance, a Harvard Medical School teaching affiliate, where the study was conducted. "Our goal is to develop objective screening methods beyond obesity for obstructive sleep apnea to be used in occupational health settings."

Of 193 male participants in the study, 15, or 8 percent, showed delayed reaction time patterns. The abnormal alertness and reaction times were found almost exclusively among obese men. The findings must be validated through additional research, but the test could potentially be administered by a company’s safety officer before drivers go on the road, possibly reducing a company’s liability, Kales says.

Currently, there is no federal mandate for medical examiners and trucking companies to use objective screening methods for obstructive sleep apnea. When self-report screenings are conducted, drivers have often been known to deny symptoms of sleep apnea and frequently don’t follow up for treatment, Kales says.

Higher Pay Fails to Entice Women to Science or Math

The wage gap between women and men shrinks in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics, the so-called "STEM" jobs. But that isn't enough to attract more U.S. women to careers in those fields, according to a recent government study.

While women make up 48 percent of the U.S. workforce, only 24 percent held STEM jobs in 2009. That figure has remained unchanged during the past decade, even as the number of women obtaining college degrees has increased.

Women in STEM jobs earned 14 percent less than men in those fields compared to 21 percent less in non-STEM positions, according to the report Women in STEM: A Gender Gap to Innovation by the U.S. Commerce Department's Economics and Statistics Administration.

"We haven't done as well as we could do to encourage young people, and particularly women, to prepare for and enter STEM jobs," said acting Commerce Secretary Rebecca Blank in a conference call with reporters. "This inhibits American innovation since these jobs are often key to the fastest-growing and most innovative sectors of our economy."

The report suggests many possible reasons women don't go into STEM jobs, including a lack of female role models, gender stereotyping and less family-friendly flexibility in the STEM fields.

Gender stereotypes begin in elementary school, says Linda Rosen, chief executive officer of Change the Equation, a corporate-backed nonprofit formed last year to engage girls and minority students in STEM fields. "As early as second grade, girls are more likely than boys to say that math isn't for them," says Rosen, even though achievement tests show no differences. The nonprofit is developing principles for effective business involvement in STEM education.

Weighty Problem

The obesity epidemic has long been blamed on Americans’ addiction to super-sized fast-food meals and television. However, new research shows that the U.S. workplace itself plays a huge role in workers’ collective weight problem.

Back in 1960, one of two Americans worked in jobs that required them to be physically active. Now, only one in five U.S. workers expend a high level of energy at work, researchers have found.

"We’re certainly not claiming that physical activity is the only culprit in the obesity epidemic," says Timothy S. Church, an exercise researcher at the Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Baton Rouge, La., and the lead author. "It’s clearly an issue of both diet and physical activity."

But his comprehensive study shows that physical activity plays a key role. "It’s a big player," he says.

Thirty-four percent of Americans over age 20 are obese, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Another 34 percent are overweight but not obese. Numerous researchers have suggested the weight gain is due to poor eating habits—primarily because there has been little change in the amount of time people spend on their leisure physical activities.

34% of Americans over age 20 are obese.

While the shift from labor-intensive jobs in agriculture and manufacturing to less-physical information and service occupations is widely recognized, Church claims his study is the first to measure changes in daily calories used.

Calculating calorie expenditures of various occupations from 1960 to 2008, the researchers found that men now expend 140 fewer calories each day and women expend 124 fewer calories.

"We were kind of stunned how changes in workplace related to physical activity so closely match increases in body weight of the average American," he says.

Because weight-related health problems, such as diabetes, require costly medical care, employers may want to provide incentives for employees to increase physical activity at work. "As an HR person, what do you want to pay for? Whether you like it or not, we’re going to have to start bringing prevention into the workplace," he says.

Weekend Work

One in three employees often receive e-mails from their bosses during the weekend and are expected to reply, according to a recent survey by Right Management.

Another one-third reported getting weekend e-mails from the boss from time to time. Thirty-seven percent of the 569 employees responding said they aren't contacted on weekends.

The findings are another indication of the 24/7 work environment that technology has brought, says Monika Morrow, senior vice president for Right Management, a division of Manpower Group. "Technology has delivered great benefits to employees, but it also crosses the boundary between the workplace and the worker's own private space," Morrow says.

1 in 3 employees often receive e-mails from their bosses during the weekend.

The survey specifically asked workers if they were expected to respond to the e-mails from bosses. "We were not talking about broadcast e-mails or purely informational communications, but those intended for a particular person and looking for a response," she says.

It's now taken for granted that everyone has to check their work e-mail during the weekend, says Morrow, who suggests such intrusions on employees' private time may be counterproductive. She advises managers to set clear expectations about what they really need to be addressed over the weekend. "And if stuff might just as easily wait until Monday, say so."

The online poll was conducted in May and June.

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