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Improvements Must be Made to the Opioid Abuse in Transportation bill

As part of the Congressional response to our nation’s opioid crisis, the Senate Commerce Committee passed the Fighting Opioid Abuse in Transportation Act last week. There is no question that drug and alcohol abuse has no place on our roads, rail networks, aviation system, or in maritime commerce, and  transportation labor is committed to that cause.

Unfortunately, this bill missed some opportunities to make our transportation system safer and includes a provision on new methods for federal drug tests that does not belong in this legislation.

Here’s what you need to know: Transportation workers must pass federal pre-employment and ongoing drug tests in order to work. For the past 25 years, urine has been the gold standard for drug testing transportation workers and is the only method approved by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). This system is rooted in sound science, proven methodology, and the understanding that scientists — not employers or lawmakers — are responsible for determining the best methods for testing transportation workers for illegal drug use.

Sadly, the Fighting Opioid Abuse in Transportation Act presses scientific agencies into implementing drug-testing standards before they are ready. To be clear, HHS scientists have not issued guidelines for testing the hair or saliva of transportation workers because they are lazy. The science behind hair and saliva drug testing remains unsound and, in some cases, racially biased. To date, government scientists have not been able to find a way to ensure these tests produce fair, accurate, and non-discriminatory results.

Placing undue political pressure on government scientists to push drug-testing standards out the door before the science catches up will not solve our nation’s opioid crisis. Instead, this tactic potentially jeopardizes the rights of transportation workers who stand to be subjected to faulty, biased drug tests should HHS scientists cave to the pressure placed on them by Congress.

The Fighting Opioid Abuse in Transportation Act also aims to start subjecting rail yardmasters — the men and women who oversee the operations of a rail yard and assign duties to workers — to drug and alcohol tests by labeling them as safety-sensitive employees. The problem? Yardmasters are currently not subject to hours-of-service rules, which ensure safety-sensitive employees are not fatigued while at work, and nowhere does the Fighting Opioid Abuse in Transportation Act offer these protections. Congress cannot have it both ways. If lawmakers deem yardmasters safety-sensitive employees and subject them to drug and alcohol tests, these workers should also be afforded the same fatigue-mitigation protections as other safety-sensitive personnel.

This bill should also ensure that foreign mechanics working on U.S. aircraft are covered by the same type of drug and alcohol testing rules that are imposed on U.S.-based mechanics. Congress actually moved to close this loophole in 2012 but to date the FAA has done nothing to implement this basic safety requirement. According to a new report by Former Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge, nearly 50 percent of maintenance work done on U.S. aircraft is conducted outside the U.S.  If we are serious about addressing drug use that jeopardizes the safety of our transportation network, it is time for Congress to once again step in and end this double standard in aircraft maintenance.

More broadly, Congress should pursue policies that ensure transportation workers and the regulated community receive proper training on how to comply with current testing mandates. This is especially important as DOT continues to implement its new testing on semisynthetic opioids that can have a valid medical use and explanation. And of course treatment and responsible return-to-work policies must be supported so that transportation workers are not needlessly excluded from their profession and able to support themselves and their families.

There is no denying Congress must address our nation’s opioid epidemic, but the policies pursued matter. Legislative efforts should be used to make our transportation system safer and ensure frontline workers are treated fairly.

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