By Jan Kornmann, CEO/Owner of KorManagement Services
Can you believe it? Drug testing is 30 years old! Well, it’s really older than that, but it was 30 years ago when the Omnibus Transportation Act of 1991, the U.S. federal regulation that requires drug and alcohol testing for safety-sensitive transportation employees, went into effect. Since that time, millions of workers have been drug and alcohol tested in the name of safety.
“Thanks to the Omnibus Transportation Act of 1991, Americans enjoy safer roads, railways, transit systems and air travel,” said Bill Current, founder of the Current Consulting Group, one of the drug testing industry’s leading providers of information. “Of all the things that have ever been attempted over the past 50 years to discourage drug abuse with its devasting impact on safety in the workplace and its tragic human cost, the DOT drug and alcohol testing regulations have been, by far, the most effective and successful.”
What Prompted the New Federal Regulation?
Some people in the drug testing industry today were not around when a series of well-documented drug-related accidents in the transportation industry resulted in multiple deaths, hundreds of injured passengers, and millions in property damage, but it is something that everyone in the industry should know about.
On January 4, 1987, a Conrail train collided with an Amtrak passenger train. In the minutes leading up to the accident, the engineer of the Conrail train, Ricky Gates, and his brakeman, Edward Cromwell, were smoking pot. While high on marijuana, the Conrail crew failed to stop at various signals, which if they had it was later determined, a tragedy could have been avoided. Instead, a completely preventable collision resulted in 16 people being killed and 170 others injured. [i]
That tragedy captured the attention of a nation fed up with the ever-increasing problem of drug abuse. And it wouldn’t be the last drug-related “workplace” accident to make the headlines. Just after midnight on August 28, 1991, a New York subway derailed due to the erratic behavior of the operator, Robert Ray. The crash killed five passengers and seriously injured 161 others. Approximately 13 hours after the accident Ray’s his blood alcohol level was 0.21; the legal level in New York State was 0.10 at the time. The day after the crash, the Mass Transit Authority (MTA) announced that it would start randomly checking subway motormen and bus drivers for illegal substances, such as drugs or alcohol.[ii]
The Role of Omnibus Act
Incidents like the ones cited above hastened the implementation of mandatory random drug and alcohol testing regulations in the transportation industry. Many reports and studies have since shown a direct correlation between drug and alcohol testing and a nationwide decline in positive workplace drug test results. Presumably, drug testing was deterring drug use by workers and preventing people from attempting to perform safety-sensitive jobs while being impaired by marijuana on the job.
“There are literally hundreds of thousands of companies that have followed 49 CFR part 40 to create effective drug-free workplace programs that have successfully deterred drug abuse and identified people who need help,” Current said. “Many of those companies were not mandated to test by the DOT regulations, but by company choice have used those regulations as a guide which has had a tremendous impact for good in the lives of countless people, families and communities.”
Current added: “The Omnibus Transportation Act of 1991 came into existence at a time when the vast majority of Americans agreed that substance was a bad thing and that we didn’t want our roads filled with truck drivers who were high on amphetamines or airline pilots buzzed on marijuana while performing safety-sensitive functions. The legalization of marijuana has clouded some peoples’ judgment when it comes to substance abuse.”
The so-called “legal” use of marijuana doesn’t change the fact that workers under the influence of pot are less safe, more likely to cause a workplace accident and file a workers’ compensation claim and are less productive than their non-drug abusing co-workers. Even though some companies have dropped marijuana from their drug test panel, Current doesn’t believe that trend will last.
“In time, as marijuana use continues to increase and more people get hurt by workers under the influence of marijuana while on the job, which is what prompted the Omnibus Transportation Act of 1991 in the first place, many companies will recognize again the value of these very effective and reasonable federal drug testing regulations and come to rely on them more extensively.”
Of course, DOT has not backed off its requirement that employers test safety-sensitive workers for marijuana. In fact, covered employers must still conduct pre-employment testing for marijuana and applicants for covered positions must produce a negative marijuana test result before they can begin performing safety-sensitive transportation functions.
Current is concerned that some people in the industry may not fully recognize the dangers of marijuana in the workplace or the value of testing for marijuana.
“Unfortunately, there are even some people in the drug testing industry who advocate for the rights of marijuana users despite the overwhelming evidence that drug testing in accordance with the federal regulations is fair and reasonable and protects the safety and well-being of all employees, the majority of whom do not use drugs or come to work under the influence of marijuana.“
“I’m worried that if we as an industry water-down drug testing by eliminating marijuana from drug-test panels or selling testing methods that don’t really show much, we will not be helping employers achieve their number one drug testing objective—maintain safe workplaces.”
Drug Testing Is a Good Thing
When asked why he got into the drug testing business, Current answered: “I got into the drug testing industry in 1989 when I was offered a job at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. But I stayed in this career because I have always felt that, as an industry, we were doing something good for society, that we were having a positive impact in people’s lives.
“The Omnibus Transportation Act of 1991, with all its various revisions over the past 30 years, provided our industry with a gold standard to follow. Today, regardless of the drug testing method being used, whether lab-based or rapid-result, utilizing urine, oral fluid, or hair, it continues to provide a framework that, when followed, offers employers the highest possible level of legal defensibility and employees an assurance of integrity in their company’s drug testing program.”
In conclusion, Current said: “I believe drug testing is here to stay. Some aspects of how we provide services to our clients may change, but one way or another, drug testing is not going away. And part of the reason for that is thanks to the Omnibus Transportation Act of 1991, which helped to establish an enduring standard of excellence that employers and drug testing providers have been able to rely on for 30 years.”
Bill Current is recognized as one of the premier experts in the drug testing industry. He has served as a consultant for many of the top drug testing laboratories, manufacturers and third-party administrators. Bill is the President and Founding Partner of the Current Consulting Group, LLC , a national consulting firm that works with drug testing companies and with employers. He is the publisher of the most up-to-date and extensive state drug testing laws database, CurrentCompliance.org, and the director of CCG’s suite of surveys, the Drug Testing Industry Survey, founded in 1999, the Annual International Drug Testing Survey, founded in 2013, and the Annual Employer Survey, founded in 2017.