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Inspector general: More Amtrak safety workers need drug testing

Only 70 percent of workers in safety positions are being tested regularly

Amtrak’s inspector general is calling for the rail line to expand its random drug testing program for workers in safety-related positions.
Amtrak’s inspector general is calling for the rail line to expand its random drug testing program for workers in safety-related positions. (Douglas Graham/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Amtrak conducts random drug tests on conductors and engineers but fails to include about 4,000 other employees who work in safety-related positions, the company’s inspector general said in a new report released Thursday.

While the National Transportation Safety Board recommends random drug tests of all transportation employees in positions that could affect employee safety or the safety of others, Amtrak limits its random tests to those who fall under the U.S. Department of Transportation’s minimum requirements — about 8,300 of the company’s roughly 18,500 employees. 

That means employees like sheet metal mechanics, onboard service attendants, welders and yardmasters aren’t required to take random drug tests, though they may be tested if they’re involved in an accident or prior to employment. They are responsible for the safe movement of trains and rail cars within a rail yard or for conveying appropriate safety instructions to Amtrak passengers during an emergency. Airlines, by contrast, require flight attendants and maintenance employees to undergo such tests. 

By omitting such employees from random tests, the inspector general reported, only 70 percent of workers in safety positions are being tested regularly.

[Hit by pandemic, Amtrak is making cuts that may endure]

“We recommend that the company assess its workforce and identify all positions in which employees’ use of prescription opioids could impair their ability to safely perform job-related tasks,” the report reads. 

Because drug testing does not cover all safety-related employees, the IG analyzed prescription and medical claims from fiscal 2019 for 11,356 unnamed Amtrak employees who performed safety-related work. It found 113 employees who met one or more of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicators of potential opioid use disorder or overdose. 

For example, the inspector general found one conductor who overdosed on opioids at the beginning of the year and subsequently filled seven prescriptions for oxycodone, which put the employee at risk for a future overdose. 

High levels

The IG report, which used insurance data and results from random drug testing, found 68 of the 113 employees had co-prescriptions with benzodiazepines, which are regularly detected with opioids in overdose deaths. Employee names were removed from the data to protect their privacy, according to the report.

It also found 42 employees had high prescription dosages for the equivalent of at least 10 tablets per day of Vicodin for at least three months.

And about 10 percent of Amtrak employees in safety-related positions, 1,157 employees, filled an opioid prescription while they were in an active work status, putting them at risk for being impaired on the job.

In 2016, an Amtrak train collided with a backhoe in Chester, Pennsylvania, resulting in two employee fatalities and 39 injuries to crew and passengers. One of the two employees who died in the accident, a supervisor standing next to the backhoe that was struck, had codeine and morphine in his system. That accident was not blamed on drug use, but the NTSB criticized Amtrak at the time for having a “weak” safety culture.

The NTSB report said it was “unclear” if the drugs impaired the supervisor’s ability to do his job and said in its findings that “the absence of a random drug testing program for maintenance-of-way employees at the time of the accident meant there was no effective program to deter the maintenance of way employees from doing drugs.”

The report found that the company’s benefits administrators, CVS/Caremark and Aetna, are capable of reporting key information to employers using the administrators’ opioid monitoring tools — information that could help detect or deter opioid misuse. But the company does not avail itself of that information, the report found, recommending that it use that information to help better capture potential drug abuse. 

The inspector general in March 2019 called for the company to further strengthen its drug testing program, and Amtrak complied. Still, the new report calls for the federally subsidized passenger rail line to expand its random drug testing program.

Company managers said that while they see value in expanding the random testing program, such changes would require union approval for any positions covered by collective bargaining agreements. In a memo to the inspector general, they said they would approach the union during future negotiations to pursue expanding the tests. 

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