Sleep apnea along with chronic heart disease and diabetes are among the most common medical issues that can delay a mariner’s application for credentials.

With that in mind, a Vanderbilt University program is treating the sleep disorder and hopes to more than double the number of workboat participants within the year. 

 “In the transportation industries, some people are working around the clock and not sleeping as well,” said Dr. Raghu Upender, medical director of the Nashville, Tenn., school’s Sleep Disorders Center. They’re trying to sleep on a boat that is moving and trying to sleep during daylight hours. And with a disorder, “your sleep is going to be compromised more.”

“By treating the symptoms, you’re going to reduce that risk and at the same time promote better health,” said Upender, whose goal is to get as many people with sleep apnea treated as possible.

A research project by the American Waterways Operators (AWO) and Northwestern University’s Center for Sleep & Circadian Biology found that mariners who spend more than eight hours in bed are sleeping only an average of six-and-a-half hours.

Sleep apnea, more common in men than women, causes someone to stop breathing repeatedly while sleeping. About 70 percent of people with the condition are overweight, according to the American Sleep Apnea Association. 

The first phase of the program begun two years ago involved 20 mariners from Ingram Barge in Nashville, Tenn., said Patience Bridges, program coach and administrative assistant at the Sleep Disorders Center. They now have 40 participants and plan to add another 40 to 60.

Of the mariners they worked with, 90 percent had sleep apnea, “and many had severe sleep apnea,” she said. The Vanderbilt Dayani Center, which provides health and wellness services, screened the mariners who came to Nashville for a two-day visit to the sleep lab. They got a CPAP (Continuous Positive Airway Pressure) machine, which steadies breathing for better sleep, and were monitored online.

After using the CPAP, “they came back telling us how well they feel now,” Upender said. “They feel more rested.”

“The biggest benefit of the screenings has been the increase in awareness of sleep apnea and other sleep disorders,” an Ingram spokesman said. Knowledge gained from the program is shared with all employees, not just those in the wheelhouse, and screenings are available to all.

“Ingram Marine Group, through its affiliation with [AWO], has been involved in sleep research of towboat crews for several years,” Ingram said.  A few years ago researchers from Northwestern and Vanderbilt approached Ingram about screenings for sleep disorders. “Ingram agreed that this would be a proactive addition to wheelhouse wellness. This is not part of a study, but simply an action taken” for employees’ health, the company said.  

Other companies are welcome to participate, Bridges said. For more information, contact Bridges at: [email protected] 

— D.K. DuPont