Coast Guard cuts drug testing rate to 25%

Two years of good results prompted the U.S. Coast Guard to lower random drug testing of crewmembers from 50 to 25 percent for 2013.

The Coast Guard can lower the rate if the tests come in at less than 1 percent of covered crewmembers. The rate was 0.77 percent in 2011 and 0.74 percent in 2010.

 “The Coast Guard commends marine employers and mariners for their efforts to create a drug-free workplace and encourages marine employers and drug testing service providers to continue to submit accurate, complete and timely” data, the agency said in a Federal Register notice. But if the rate rises or the data is subpar, then the minimum random testing rate could be reinstated to 50 percent.

The Passenger Vessel Association, which had pushed for the change, said it will cut vessel operating costs.

“This action is a breath of fresh air at a time when regulatory burdens on small business are becoming unbearable,” PVA president Paul Belforti said in a statement. “PVA will continue to work for more regulatory relief in other areas as appropriate.”

   In its comments on the proposal last year, PVA cited Small Business Administration statistics that showed the cost of meeting federal regulations at more than $10,000 per employee. “Rest assured that easing these regulatory requirements will not change the industry’s commitment to establishing drug-free workplaces,” PVA said.

 The American Waterways Operators also welcomed the change.

“AWO member companies are committed to complying with the Coast Guard’s random testing program. We were very pleased that the Coast Guard was able take advantage of the extremely low industrywide frequency of positive tests to lower the required random testing rate,” said AWO spokesman Ann McCulloch.

One issue raised by the Coast Guard in its original proposal to revise the drug rules was a possible requirement for crewmembers selected for testing to report immediately to the testing site to improve the reliability of employers’ programs. Current regulations have no timetable. 

The comments were nearly uniformly negative. Opponents said that requiring mariners who live and work all over the U.S. to report to a central location in a short period of time would be impossible. 

“If immediate reporting were to be enacted, the requirement that an officer on a vessel must collect a sample immediately may pose an undue burden upon the operation of the vessel if the vessel is underway,” Dr. Kenneth B. Miller, medical director of the Seafarers Health and Benefits Plan, said in comments posted to the docket. “Costs would increase as a result of repeat testing which would be required by collection issues that may arise and/or by tests taken while underway that are not able to be processed immediately.”

 Members of Portland, Ore.-based Columbia River Pilots that are selected for random testing have up to three hours to report to a collection facility. “A requirement to report for testing in less than three hours would be burdensome, and in many instances would be a timeline our members could not meet,” the pilots said.

 And Canal Barge Co. Inc., New Orleans, noted just how stringent its policy is.

“We randomly select boats and test the entire crew. We do not select individual mariners to test unless there is reasonable suspicion,” the company said in its comments.

What’s more, “Our policy is that employees who refuse to be tested are terminated.”

 The federal notice on the testing rate did not deal with the immediacy issue. Robert Schoening, Coast Guard drug and alcohol program manager, couldn’t say when it would be addressed. 

— Dale K. DuPont 


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