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Testing of safety-sensitive personnel for alcohol and other drugs

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On 18 March 2004, the Australian Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB) publicly released its accident report on a fatal accident that occurred at Hamilton Island in September 2002. A finding of this report was that the possible adverse effects on pilot performance of fatigue, recent cannabis use and post-alcohol impairment could not be discounted.

Major accidents involving drug and alcohol usage have driven proposals internationally to implement testing programs together with related safety measures, e.g. rehabilitation, return-to-work initiatives, and peer support programs. The United States has been at the forefront, prompted by drug-related accidents (collision of Amtrak and Conrail trains in January 1987, and a commuter plane crash in January 1988) and alcohol-related events (pilot of a major US air carrier flying while intoxicated in March 1990, and the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989).

The US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) began a Drug Abatement Program in 1988 to assist their industry in developing and implementing substance testing programs. Over 30,000 positive tests were reported between 1990 and 2003 under the US testing regime.

High profile incidents involving substance use have occurred in Australia and New Zealand, most notably the accident that killed nine people on the Franz Josef Glacier in 1993. However, Australia does not yet have legislated testing procedures in place for aviation safety-sensitive personnel, including flight crew.

There is evidence that:

  • substance abuse occurs in aviation, across national borders and job descriptions;
  • people have died in substantial numbers where evidence of inappropriate substance use was confirmed; and
  • all manner of aviation operations - from microlights to Boeing 747s - have been placed at risk.

In short, aviation personnel are no different from the rest of the community in their experiences with substance abuse, and so it is appropriate to consider appropriate safety responses - specifically testing - employed internationally in aviation and in other vocations and industries to achieve better safety outcomes.

DOTARS and CASA released a report in January 2006 on the safety benefits of introducing drug and alcohol testing for safety sensitive personnel in the Australian aviation sector. The Minister for Transport and Regional Services has since directed CASA to immediately commence work on implementing the recommendations of the report. This project sets out to address the Minister's direction. Introduction by regulation of a minimum standard for drug and alcohol testing for safety-sensitive roles in the aviation sector - to be managed as appropriate by industry and law enforcement agencies, and reported on to the regulator - is the key step. As noted above, some industries including aviation are already pushing ahead in Australia and abroad to introduce testing, and it is appropriate that Government support those endeavours by:

  • establishing a testing regime incorporating minimum standards against which results can be monitored and acted upon as required; and
  • to encourage a broader response to drug and alcohol use and abuse, including the formalisation of such initiatives in safety management systems.

In combination with testing, there needs to be a commitment to education of aviation personnel as to the risks of inappropriate drug and alcohol use as well as treatment options, rehabilitation measures and re-certification processes. Education is a responsibility to be shared by CASA, specialist health agencies and the industry.

Most importantly, it falls to the aviation community - managers, safety-sensitive personnel and others - to demonstrate commitment to effective and comprehensive policies and strategies at industry and operator levels. This is where the safety benefits will be maximised, and the risk of suffering a disaster due to the actions of an alcohol or other drug impaired safety-sensitive employee will be minimised.