Random testing of 7 million transportation workers for alcohol use proposed

December 11, 1992|By New York Times News Service

WASHINGTON -- The Transportation Department propose new regulations yesterday that would make 7 million transportation workers subject to on-the-job breath tests for alcohol use and expand existing drug tests to include mass transit workers.

The new testing program, the largest of its kind in the United States, was mandated by Congress last year in response to a series of accidents involving alcohol. Among them were the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989, which was partly attributed to the captain's drinking, and the derailment of a subway car in New York City in 1991, which killed five people. The motorman's drinking was blamed for the crash.

The final rules will apply to truck drivers, railroad employees, pilots and air traffic controllers, merchant mariners and others in safety-related jobs. Anyone starting a transportation job will be tested for alcohol use before being hired, and afterward as many as half of them will be subject to random or periodic tests each year. In addition, any worker who is involved in an accident or whose supervisors suspect drinking will be tested.

The proposed rules will be open to public comment for 120 days and then will become final. The employers and government agencies that will do the testing will have a year or two to begin the testing. The program is already far past the Oct. 28 deadline set by law for its start.

Some industry and labor groups criticized the proposed rules, but their objections are unlikely to alter the plans much. And in cases involving drug testing rules that took effect two years ago, federal courts already have decided that safety considerations override privacy concerns.

John Mazur, a spokesman for the Air Line Pilots Association, said, "We are opposed to random testing; we see no need for random testing." But he added that the pilots are pleased by the decision to use breath analysis, rather than blood testing, which they view as more intrusive. Pilots are already subject to urine sampling for drug use.

Federal rules already prohibit drinking on the job or for several hours before working in transportation jobs, but there is generally no testing for alcohol use except after accidents.

By setting new alcohol limits considerably below the levels that are already illegal in many situations, and by providing a deterrent to alcohol abuse, the regulations are intended to pull people off the job even when they are not legally drunk. The Transportation Department estimated that the rules would save nearly 1,200 lives and avert 21,000 injuries over 10 years.

If the blood alcohol content is as low as 0.02 percent -- the measure that might be found in a 160-pound adult male who had just consumed a beer or two -- the worker would be taken off the job until the level dropped. If the test showed a reading of 0.04 percent, the worker would be sent for substance abuse treatment. The legal limit for drunken driving in most states, including Maryland, is 0.10 percent.

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