Job Safety

August 29, 2008

A Failed Policy Made Worse

The Department of Transportation (DOT) mandates that transportation companies test their workers for drug use on a regular basis. This is done by testing urine samples. Over the years a range of evasive tactics have been developed by employees who don’t want to be tested and by companies that don’t want to spend the money on testing. It has become a serious problem for the program which has been in urgent need of reform for a long time.

Testing has certainly reduced drug use by some transportation workers. But has it had any effect on industry safety? Probably not much, urine testing is largely ineffective for reducing worker impairment related accidents. Moreover it has prevented companies from trying some new solutions because they feel “regulated to death” already.

Nevertheless, the government continues to try to make the urine testing system work and to insist that it is safety related. A new GAO report “Improvements to Drug Testing Programs” (GAO-08-600) finally acknowledges the evasive tactics being used and adds a series of “improvements”. The report writers neglect to mention the most obvious improvement which would be to toss the entire drug testing program. Seriously, urine testing needs to be reevaluated in the light of current available alternatives, including, of course, the BLT Alertness Test. But, rather than recommending alternative approaches, the report asks that the screws be tightened a bit more.

In response DOT has amended its regulations (codified at 49 CFR Part 40) for conducting workplace drug and alcohol testing for the federally regulated transportation industry. The new regulations, which took effect on August 25, require all transportation workers who were previously tested (i.e., who have tested positive for a prohibited drug in the past) or who are returning to work have their urine specimens observed by specimen collectors

I do not think this “direct observation” provision and the other requirements of the new regulation will stop drug testing subversion and evasions. Transportation cost will increase and government intrusion will grow. The unfortunate inspectors will become even more unpopular.

Just to be clear, I don’t like the idea of anyone taking illegal drugs especially while driving a truck or anything else. If we are only concerned with drug use on the highway, then urine testing might be the way to go – if we can find a way to make everyone do it. But driver impairment is often the result of driver fatigue, prescription drug effects or emotional stress. We can test for these other factors with computerized impairment tests that are non-invasive and easy to administer.

It is my hope that the DOT will broaden its view and recognize that impairment testing is a practical and direct way to improve transportation safety.