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Truck Driver? Pilot? Don't Get a USDOT Drug Violation!

By Richard Zimmer 03/31/14

Testing positive for alcohol or drugs while on the job could land you a long and complicated program with a Substance Abuse Professional.

truck driver.jpg
Not so happy trails. Shutterstock

Are you a driver of large trucks, a bus driver, a commercial pilot, a railroad engineer, or a worker on a pipeline? Are you a family member of a person who works in these areas? Do you know the rules regarding alcohol, prescription medications, and drug use on the job and off? Do you know the consequences if someone tests positive for drugs or alcohol?  

All the above jobs are covered under rules set down by the US Department of Transportation (USDOT). You can check the rules yourself: They are Federal Regulations 49 CFR Part 40. They are written in simple, easy to understand language. What I’d like to do is review the rules and procedures for you and to share some working perspectives on them.

In very simple terms, you shouldn’t use illegal drugs at all. You shouldn’t drink on the job and before starting on the job. And you shouldn’t use prescription medications on the banned list unless you have previously notified your employer and that it won’t interfere with your work. If you work for a company or agency, you are supposed to be regularly trained in the rules. If you work alone as a truck operator, you are supposed to be trained by a third party administrator. You can look up in the regulations to find the specifics of your occupation. The common theme is: don’t use illegal drugs and don’t drink on or before the job.      

In all cases, you will be randomly tested every two years for illegal drugs. You must consent to take this test. Refusal to take the test constitutes a DOT violation. The tests are highly accurate, even more than state tests for drugs and alcohol. Don’t expect the tests to be inaccurate!

If you test positive for illegal drugs or alcohol use, it will be up to your employer to decide whether you stay working at that position. If, for example, you are a truck driver and have an accident on the job and test positive, you will be taken right off your truck. At minimum for all covered occupations, you will be removed from any work in a safety sensitive position. For truck drivers, that will also include maintenance and mechanical work. The same is true for airline mechanics as well. Unless covered by contract, your employer may choose to terminate you right then.     

Once you are removed from work, you must see a Substance Abuse Professional (SAP). There are national directories of SAPs, such as Your employer may have a list of SAPs. The SAP will schedule an appointment for you. The SAP is usually a therapist or psychologist who has successfully completed the SAP training. I am writing this as a SAP who is also a psychologist and who has worked in the field for many years. 

The SAP’s job is to assess you. The SAP will have received a written notice of your DOT violation. This notice will include the type of infraction and the date of infraction and its attestation by a Medical Review Officer (MRO.) The MRO is a physician certified to assess the testing of your sample. The SAP may contact the MRO to review her/his findings.

When the SAP contacts you to make an appointment, s/he will ask you how you intend to pay for her/his services. You should be prepared to answer this question so that the assessment can proceed.

In terms of payment, your employer may choose to pay for the assessment. Your Employee Assistance Program may have that as a benefit. Your health insurance may cover it as a benefit. I would advise you to find out beforehand whether you are covered or not. If you are covered, make sure you have the authorization number for your assessment. If you are not covered, the SAP will charge you directly. It is customary that you pay the SAP in full on the initial visit and SAPs will insist on this. The SAP will not be moved that you do not have the money to pay for this. The SAP knows upfront that you are supposed to know you are not to use illegal drugs or drink on the job. 

There are several reasons payment is expected upfront. The first is that the SAP wants to know that s/he will get reimbursed. Many people do not finish the assessment or treatment process. The SAP does not want to have to bill you or send the bill to collections. S/he may ask for a non-refundable pre-payment of a set amount to ensure that you make your appointment.

The second reason is that once you start with a SAP, you cannot switch to another SAP. I am writing this in bold so that you remember it: In simple terms, you cannot SAP-shop. So, let me go over the assessment procedure with you.  

The SAP will schedule an appointment when s/he hears the issue and is assured of payment. When you come in, the SAP will review the process with you.  

S/he or he will ask you to sign a statement of understanding after this explanation. This statement will include the fact that the SAP will be in contact with your Designated Employee Representative (DER) if you work for a company or agency. You should already know who your DER is. Often it is someone in the Human Relations Department (HR). If the person is not there, your HR department should tell you who s/he is. I am writing this again in bold so that you take it seriously: If you are taking a prescription medication, you should tell your DER or Third Party Administrator (TPA) when you first get it. It should be on record. Any changes should be on record. 

I am putting this in bold and underlining it because it is crucial: If you are in a state that has legalized marijuana or has permitted medical marijuana, and you use it, you are still in violation of USDOT regulations.  

The SAP will explain to you that you should know that this contact is required and is NOT subject to your consent. And, as you will see, the SAP’s contact with whatever program s/he sends you to is also not subject to your consent. If the SAP needs to talk with your physician, that is upon your consent and covered by HIPAA privacy rules. 

The SAP will review the concerns about your violation. USDOT considers the violations serious and that you are putting the public—who is the real “client"—at risk. The SAP will also explain that the assessment process is something for which s/he is responsible as well.  

The SAP will customarily give you a standardized test about drug and alcohol use. S/he will use the results to guide the resultant intake interview. The SAP will then ask you questions about your violation, your personal life, and substance use and abuse, both past and present. S/he will often review medical issues with you as well.

I am writing the next part in bold letters so that you don’t miss what I’m saying: The SAP, both through training and experience, has heard every kind of story about how any violation has occurred. Don’t try to con the SAP. That makes her or him suspicious of you. Remember: you are supposed to know that you are not to use. I have heard stories about how meth was put in beer or that someone took their wife’s medication by mistake. In one year, I heard from four violators that meth was accidentally put in their beer. 

The SAP will then make a considered judgment about the kind of treatment you need. The SAP’s judgment is final and cannot be appealed. The SAP will have familiarized herself/himself with treatment centers in your area, including costs. If there are none, s/he will find others elsewhere. You will have to find out whether your insurance covers them. The SAP may try to accommodate some of your financial and work needs, but s/he is not obligated to do so. If your insurance or employer doesn’t cover treatment, you will be expected to pay for it yourself even though you may not have the money to pay. That is not the SAP’s primary concern. You can do the program when you have the money. You will not be able to work in any DOT safety sensitive position until you do so and have received a successful reassessment from the SAP. 

The SAP will then contact the treatment program if s/he thinks it’s warranted. Many treatment programs are familiar with DOT violations. The SAP will tell the treatment worker what s/he expects to be addressed in treatment; the program may have additional requirements as well. Generally, programs also test you for drugs while you are in attendance. You will have to find out whether such drug testing is covered by your insurance or yourself.  

As I have said earlier, the SAP does not need your consent to talk to the treatment facility. Again the bold for emphasis: The facility may have its own procedures and ask that you sign a release so that they can talk to the SAP. Make sure that you do because the SAP will not proceed until s/he knows that s/he can talk to the facility and follow your progress. That is your responsibility.

If the SAP recommends a program, then s/he will monitor your progress. S/he may also be in communication with your DER throughout. At the end of your program, the SAP will review your progress with the program. If additional work is needed mid-stream, it will be part of your plan. S/he will then schedule a reassessment of you. At that time, the SAP will decide what you must do next in terms of your follow-up. That follow-up will likely include more randomized drug and/or alcohol testing and attendance in sobriety groups.  

As mentioned, the SAP may want to talk to your doctor. One client I assessed drank several six packs of beer every night for back and neck pain. I spoke to his doctor and he was given appropriate treatment for his condition—so that he wouldn’t have to use and abuse alcohol.

Your DER will get this report. The EAP or insurance company may also want a copy of the report. It is yours and the DER’s responsibility to do the follow-up. If you do not complete the program, the DER will receive a report of non-compliance. The SAP’s assessment is not a fitness report, not a return to work report, but a report of your drug use and treatment. The employer will decide to do what s/he wants to do regarding your employment or work assignment. If you don’t complete the SAP’s recommendations and you want to work in a USDOT covered position, you must tell the prospective or new employer that you have a violation and must complete the program before being allowed to work in any USDOT safety sensitive position.

To repeat, because this is so important, you shouldn’t be using or abusing. You should make sure you are regularly informed of USDOT regulations. You should comply willingly with the testing procedure. If you are a partner or spouse of a USDOT covered person, you should know what the rules are and make sure your person is not abusing substances. If that person is the main source of your livelihood, she or he is putting your welfare at risk. I would certainly ask the DOT covered partner what their training has been and what are the results of their randomized drug and alcohol tests. The goal is not to have a violation and not to see a SAP.   

Richard Zimmer, PhD is a licensed psychologist, a SAP—a Substance Abuse Professional—and an anthropologist. He practices in Santa Rosa, California.

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