3 critical times to conduct drug and alcohol testing for railroad crew

A few years ago, a railroad company in North American experienced a train accident that resulted in several fatalities and injuries. It turned out that several of the crew members involved tested positive for drug use following the accident.  

In response, the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) implemented a rule requiring random drug screening for Maintenance-of-Way (MOW) employees. The FRA also started conducting a series of reviews on FRA drug testing programs within the railroad industry, in order to review and approve the various alcohol and drug testing program plans that railroads use and enforce compliance with the plans and minimum annual random alcohol and drug testing standards.

Drug and alcohol testing in railroads

The FRA, in this case, isn’t trying to play the bad cop; they’re just doing their due diligence in supporting increased safety and security in railroads. This means that mandatory drug and alcohol testing is just one type of testing conducted under the umbrella of operational, or field, testing.

Under Title 49, part 219, railroads must observe each employee at least two times per year, observing their symptoms and ensuring that they’re not under the influence of drugs or alcohol. Railroads must submit these observations for the previous year every March.

The FRA follows up with an audit where the railroad must show the data considered, such as the donor, person observed, observation type (how the test was conducted), test result, and the place of the observations. Some of these tests are planned and some involve the selection of a random testing pool.

Who gets tested?

The FRA has set minimum Federal safety standards for FRA-regulated employees (i.e. railroad employees) use of alcohol and drugs, along with annual rates for how often they should be tested. For the 2019 year, MOW employees must be tested for alcohol 25 percent of the time they are randomly tested, and for drugs 10 percent of the time.

3 critical times to conduct drug and alcohol testing

So how can you make sure that your drug and alcohol testing meets FRA standards and ensures the level of safety that you want? Here are 3 critical times when you should conduct drug and alcohol testing:

  1. The employee is going to perform safety-sensitive duties

Testing can be done in the field or randomly, or the employee can be sent to an alcohol testing site where they provide breath or saliva for an alcohol test. The FRA has set rates for random testing that railroads must adhere to. The 2019 random drug testing rate should be 25% for covered services, and another 50% for MOW workers. The same 2019 rates for random alcohol testing are 10% for covered services and 25% for MOW employees. The U.S. Department of Transportation has shared some best practices for random drug and alcohol testing.

  1. Following an accident

Remember the accident we mentioned above? Railroad employees under FRA regulations must undergo drug and alcohol testing following an accident or incident. In order to make this process easier, the FRA developed a mobile application for ISO devices to enable rapid FRA post-accident testing. The app can also be used as a tool for railroad and contractor employees to help them understand the post-accident requirements.

  1. The employee has consumed alcohol within 4 hours of reporting for regular service or after receiving notice to report for regular service.

Any safety-sensitive employees must undergo both random drug and alcohol testing, including when they have consumed alcohol within a given perimeter of 4 hours before and after reporting for work.

Measure the success of your drug and alcohol testing:

It’s one thing to conduct the obligatory drug and alcohol tests on your crew; but how are you measuring how successful the testing is?

Through a modern operational testing program, railroads can access user-friendly dashboards where both executives and testing officers can view the results of tests performed across the business based on certain KPIs, such as success and failure rates. Executives can also see how drug and alcohol tests were conducted. Was it random or non-random, through a camera, audio, and in-person?

With this increased visibility, you can measure how effective drug and alcohol tests are for your crew and make decisions accordingly.

Once a test has been conducted, the status of the crew will be updated in real-time, creating visibility into who is up-to-date on certifications, who is certified to administer a drug and alcohol test, and if an employee has passed or railed a drug and alcohol test. This informs crew scheduling since you don’t want to assign crew to jobs they are not qualified to take in the first place. And crew managers will enjoy this also since they’ll be able to make better crew allocations by factoring in these considerations.

What does the drug and alcohol testing program look like for your railroad? Talk to one of our rail experts today to explore a solution that can better support efficient testing and compliance.

Have you read our Industry Perspective “Strategies to build a safety culture in railroads through technology”?