Flaws Found in Amtrak’s Drug, Alcohol Testing Programs

By Roy Maurer Oct 17, 2012

The conductors, mechanics and engineers who operate the nation’s largest passenger rail service have been testing positive for drugs and alcohol more and more frequently over the last six years, Amtrak’s inspector general said in a report warning of serious safety risks to the public.

Additionally, Amtrak’s internal watchdog agency is criticizing the rail service’s management for not doing enough to uncover drug and alcohol abuse among safety-sensitive employees. The report released Sept. 27, 2012, found flaws in Amtrak’s drug and alcohol testing programs, concluding the railroad is not “exercising due diligence” in controlling substance use and that the railroad’s positive test numbers by operating employees in safety-sensitive positions far exceeds the national average for the railroad industry.

Amtrak is one of 38 large railroads that are required to have a drug and alcohol program and report the results of their data to the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA). The FRA requires Amtrak, as part of administering its program, to exercise “due diligence” to ensure that its employees are not using illegal drugs, controlled substances without a prescription, or alcohol while on duty or for eight hours prior to duty.

“Drug and alcohol misuse by Amtrak’s hours-of-service employees poses a potential threat to employee, passenger and public safety,” Amtrak Inspector General Ted Alves said in the report. (Hours-of-service employees must have at least 10 hours off between work shifts.) The federal regulation requiring Amtrak to perform random testing for drugs on at least 25 percent of its critical hours-of-service employees randomly (for example, engineers, conductors, dispatchers) and for alcohol on at least 10 percent each year was established to limit accidents and improve public safety, Alves said.

Since 2006, Amtrak hours-of-service employees have been testing positive for drugs and alcohol at a rate that has trended upward and exceeded the industry average for the past five years, the inspector general found. The majority of these tests were for drugs, cocaine and marijuana primarily. In 2011, Amtrak had 17 positive tests for drugs or alcohol, which resulted in a combined positive test rate that was about 51 percent above the industry average. The 2011 rate was driven by a relatively large number of positive tests by signals and mechanical employees that were over four times the rate of industry peers. Based on the random test data, the auditors found, with 95 percent confidence, that if all 4,454 operating employees had been tested in 2011, between 21 and 65 of them would have tested positive for drug use, with a best estimate of 43 employees. Between four and 32 of Amtrak’s operating employees would have tested positive for alcohol use, with a best estimate of 18 employees, according to the report.

Failure of Management

The report also found that until the inspector general’s inquiry, Amtrak management wasn’t aware of the extent of drug and alcohol use by employees.

In criticizing Amtrak’s senior management failure to curtail the problem, the inspector general noted that Amtrak is not complying with the due diligence requirement of the federal drug-screening regulation regarding railroad employees. “Amtrak’s current senior management’s lack of knowledge about the extent of drug and alcohol use, the lack of engagement in the program, and the limited response to the FRA’s concerns raise serious questions about Amtrak’s commitment to controlling drug and alcohol use.”

Amtrak’s senior management hasn’t “demonstrated that controlling drugs and alcohol is a clear priority at Amtrak, thereby making it difficult to manage the risk that drug and alcohol use poses to its employees, passengers and the public,” the report said.

Drug Testing to Increase at Amtrak

The inspector general made five specific recommendations to Amtrak: increase the rate at which it tests its operating employees randomly; review testing data routinely; demonstrate that senior management is engaged in the drug and alcohol program; ensure that the physical observation program meets or exceeds federal regulatory program guidance; and ensure that its operating supervisors are trained adequately in identifying signs and symptoms of drug and alcohol use and that their training is recorded properly.

Amtrak President and CEO Joseph Boardman concurred with all of the recommendations and established time frames for their implementation.

“The IG report provides useful information on which Amtrak management can take action. Management remains committed to making valuable improvements to its drug and alcohol program and agrees that no Amtrak employee should be under the influence of drugs or alcohol at work,” Boardman wrote in Amtrak’s official response.

Random drug test rates will be boosted from 33 percent to 50 percent in the upcoming fiscal year, Boardman wrote. As for the recommendation to get senior management involved in the substance abuse program, Boardman said Amtrak will form a “senior management oversight group” by January 2013.

Railroads have been required to control drug and alcohol use by employees since a 1987 train accident in Chase, Md., that killed 16 people and injured 147. The engineer for the now defunct railroad company involved in the crash had sped through three signals, causing his train to collide with an Amtrak train. An investigation found that the engineer had been under the influence of marijuana.

Roy Maurer is an online editor/manager for SHRM.​


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