Drugs and Alcohol Screening:
Approach to Safety Management
Advanced Aviation Technology
The safety and security of air travel depends upon
properly trained personnel, well-founded systems and procedures and the
development and application of a range of techniques to detect, identify,
quantify and respond to both active and passive threats to the safety and
security of aviation. These are the essential elements of an effective Safety
Management System. Central to safety management itself is the integrity,
reliability and performance of personnel (and passengers!). Recent events have
illustrated the positive and negative roles that passengers, airport personnel
and airline crew can have on aviation safety.
In extreme cases, individual people, whether by
negligence, accident or design, can pose a significant threat to the safety of
air travel. Occasionally, this may be due to alcohol or to drugs abuse
(generally termed "substance abuse"). Given the shear scale and intensity of
aviation operations, the very large numbers of passengers and the critical
importance of airport and airline staff being able to perform at their best, it
makes sense to have a drugs policy in place and to be prepared to routinely
test for substance and alcohol abuse. Especially as this can now be done
quickly, accurately and at low cost - with direct and measurable benefits. The
need to screen for substance abuse is particularly relevant today, where
substance abuse is relatively common in the general population.
Aviation has had many shocks in recent times and these
have badly shaken the confidence of the travelling public and the commercial
well being of the industry. Even relatively small incidents are sufficient to
perturb an already uneasy travelling public, with catastrophic commercial
consequences to airlines and airports. Recent incidents have demonstrated that,
despite careful and intensive training, alcohol and drugs abuse does occur -
albeit at a low level. In fact, studies have shown that substance abuse is more
common than is generally believed. Whilst substance abuse only occurs within a
small minority of the population, the effects on the industry as a whole can be
disproportionately large. Like an accident, most airlines and airports cannot
afford even one such (usually well publicised) incident. It is always wise to
be proactive in such circumstances and have appropriate procedures in place to
limit and control such events.
2. Substance Abuse
For a passenger, a small amount of alcohol taken with
food might be considered relaxing. For a pilot, the same amount of alcohol
could be considered positively dangerous, irresponsible and punishable by
dismissal. "Excessive" alcohol consumption is unacceptable in any case - but
the term "excessive" must be defined. Any amount of cocaine or heroin in the
bloodstream is legally unacceptable, whilst some States do tolerate Cannabis
(although not usually in the case of pilots!).
Substance abuse refers to the taking of any alcohol or
drug in unacceptable quantities. What is meant by the term "unacceptable"
depends upon the applicable legislation, the person and the activity. If a
passenger continues to drink alcohol before or during their flight, then they
may become a danger to themselves, to other passengers or even to the aircraft
itself. At some point, taking a relaxing drink has become substance abuse. Yet
people often believe they "can handle" drink, when in reality they have little
Substance abuse can alter human perception and
behaviour. It can produce profound personality changes and interfere with
performance, response times and alertness. It may affect the way in which
individuals normally respond to events, it may result in risk taking, lack of
awareness of danger and may generally result in what may be called
Individuals who resort to substance abuse may be good
at hiding their habit, especially if they hold positions of responsibility.
They do not wear badges declaring their addiction or habit. They may even be
willing to become involved in other illicit activities, such as smuggling (a
baggage handler who takes cocaine may be more willing to aid and abet smuggling
to feed their expensive habit) and they are also vulnerable to blackmail.
Consequently, substance abuse is to be discouraged at
all levels, whether passenger, airport personnel or airline crew.
3. Effective Safety Management
It makes sense to take simple and proportionate steps
to counter the possible damage that could be caused by an individual under the
influence of alcohol or drugs. That is, to make the detection of alcohol and
substance abuse a routine part of the Safety Management System itself - in much
the same way that periodic medical exams are carried out to ensure flight crew
are physically fit for their tasks. Airport and Airline Personnel can be
routinely screened, without inconvenience, in order to both detect and to
discourage alcohol and substance abuse.
This can be initiated right from the outset at
recruitment, where tests can easily ascertain not only whether a substance is
present in the bloodstream, but (in the case of hair testing) whether the
substance concerned has been taken within the last three months.
For effective Safety Management, drugs and alcohol
screening should be seen as preventative - not punitive.
Pilots and crew occasionally drink alcohol, especially
on long haul flights where normal sleep patterns are disrupted (to "help them
get to sleep"). The rules for flight crew governing such alcohol consumption
are strict, but it may be difficult for the person concerned to recognise that
they may still be "under the influence" when reporting for duty the following
day. This is more of a problem today, when turnaround times are much shorter
that even 10 years ago. Enabling self-testing is a simple means of overcoming
or avoiding this problem.
Equally, passengers under the influence of alcohol
and/or drugs can be both difficult to deal with and, in extreme cases, an
active threat to flight safety. There have even been examples of passengers
forcing their way onto the flight deck. Whilst this will become more difficult
in the future as reinforced flight deck doors are introduced, it will still
leave a potentially dangerous or disruptive person in the cabin. Ideally, it is
wise to prevent passengers that represent such a risk from boarding a flight
but, without the right tools and training, this can be problematic and
difficult to do with certainty.
4. Safety Policy
As noted, drugs and alcohol screening should not be
seen as punitive - it can also be used for therapeutic purposes too. It can
help to rehabilitate personnel (or passengers who have been refused boarding in
the past) or those who may have been under stress or where extenuating or
unusual circumstances apply. This depends on the circumstances, the legislation
in place and on the policies of the organisation itself (including medical
support, welfare policies etc).
All aviation organisations (airlines, airports,
security, baggage handling etc.) should have an alcohol and drugs policy. That
is, it should be clear what will and what will not be tolerated, what controls
should be in place and what the appropriate response in each case should be. It
should encompass direct company personnel, subcontractors and passengers as
appropriate. This is an area of basic health and safety, but one that extends
into many other areas, sometimes touching on personal freedoms. This is also an
area much affected by the legislation - and it should be noted that current
aviation, customs and immigration legislation as applied in most countries is
both pro-active and strong, if not severe.
5. Legal Liability
Personnel departments should be properly briefed on
the necessity of ensuring that all personnel are able to perform their job
functions without impairment or infringement of the rules and regulations and
indeed, of the law. More importantly, personnel departments should be able to
effectively ensure that this is so. An employer may be seen as negligent if
they do not take reasonable steps to detect substance abuse, especially when
warning signs are clearly present ("everyone knew he drank on duty").
Companies and operators may be particularly liable if
personnel performing essential safety functions (Flight Crew, Cabin Crew,
Security Personnel, Air Traffic Controllers, Baggage Handlers and others) are
under the influence of drugs or alcohol. This is not a matter where
responsibility is limited purely to the offending individual - especially if
the means of detection, prevention, and deterrence exists and is available to
the company at low cost. It is important to recognise and address known risks.
For example, screening of baggage handlers for the use or handling of drugs and
other substances, can help identify those who may be involved in smuggling
National and International legislation clearly
requires safety personnel to be able to carry out their tasks without
impairment from substance abuse, but then often leaves it to the individual
concerned to decide if they are fit for their duties (yet they may be the least
able or the least inclined to do so!). In the case of serious loss of life or
injury following an accident involving substance abuse, leaving it up to the
individual to determine their fitness for duty is a poor defence.
6. Education on Substance Abuse
Education should be given on the range and effect of
substance abuse to safety personnel. It is a basic element of Safety Management
that personnel are made aware of the risks and signs, so that they are able to
respond appropriately. Personnel should be made aware of the impact of
substance abuse on human performance. As substance abuse is unfortunately
prevalent in society at large, it is also appropriate to clearly spell out the
risks. This is not a case of "showing the instruments of torture" to the
intended victim, but rather making personnel aware that drugs remain in the
human body for longer periods than many believe and can significantly change
human perception, performance and behaviour over an extended period. This, in
turn, may significantly change the way they perform their duties.
It may also be necessary to provide training on
identifying substances and the implements associated with their use.
7. Training Personnel to Detect Warning Signs
It is important that training is given to detect the
signs of substance abuse and that procedures are followed to ensure an
appropriate response when it does occur.
For example, preventing passengers "under the
influence" from boarding an aircraft, requires the alertness of all personnel
from Check-in to Boarding. To be effective, all personnel handling passengers
should be trained to identify the warning signs and to do so without
discrimination or stereotyping. Recent examples have occurred where
stereotyping is not only unhelpful, but positively counterproductive -
particularly where assumptions are made about appearance and dress. Passengers
who abuse alcohol and drugs come in all shapes, sizes, gender and "social
class". Passengers who abuse drugs are just as likely to be well-dressed and in
First Class as someone scruffily dressed in economy.
Identifying a person who is possibly under the
influence of alcohol or drugs is only the first step. Determining what
substance or combination of substances they have been affected by - with an
effective and rapid test regime - should be the next step closely followed by
an appropriate response by trained personnel. All this must be done with care
and sensitivity to ensure that the affected passenger (or professional) does
not become an active danger to themselves or even pose a danger to other
passengers, crew or airport personnel.
The possibility of testing passengers and personnel at
key points can be enabled by the presence of properly trained staff with
portable test kits. This must be achieved with some discretion, so that
innocent persons are not unduly alarmed or embarrassed.
8. Who Should be Screened?
This is a most sensitive issue. It is reasonable for
any person to show some concern about screening, although safety personnel
should be willing and able to recognise the need and necessity for screening.
Having a Drugs Policy is an essential first step and will help to resolve any
employee issues. Once again, drugs and alcohol screening should not be seen as
punitive, but preventative.
Drugs screening could reasonably be applied to:
- New employees
- Safety personnel
- Security personnel
- Personnel holding responsibilities
- Personnel operating in secure areas (e.g.
- Passengers behaving oddly
- Reasonable suspicion
- Post incident/accident
The typical range of airport and airline activities
that drugs and alcohol screening could be applied to include Management, Flight
and Cabin Crew, ATC, Security, Baggage handling. A Drugs Policy will help to
identify who should be screened, how this should be done and how often.
9. The Benefits
Properly introduced, drugs screening will enhance the
operational environment for all personnel, improving reliability, performance
and productivity and reducing the rate of incidents. Indeed, there is often
nothing more demoralising to employees than being aware of an erratic,
unreliable colleague whose behaviour and poor performance may be the result of
substance abuse (whether his colleagues are directly aware of the substance
abuse or not).
Substance abuse is a fact of life in society at large
and the individuals who indulge, for whatever reason, represent both direct and
indirect risks to their colleagues, to their profession, to the travelling
public and to the companies and organisations they work for. Screening will
directly reduce the amount of substance abuse and alert all personnel to the
risks involved. In reducing risks, screening also helps to reduce the
liabilities attached to those risks.
The efficiency and low cost of on-site pre-screening,
means that it is an effective method of improving performance and reducing
operational risk to any organisation.
10. Drugs Screening Techniques
There has been a revolution in screening techniques
for alcohol and drugs. Testing can now be accurately, rapidly and cheaply
carried out on:
- Hair samples
- Swabs (testing surfaces, hands etc).
Portable sterile and easy-to-use pre-screening kits
for immediate on-site saliva and urine tests are both accurate and low cost,
making routine testing both practical and effective. More importantly these
tests are reliable and can be followed up by independent and certified
laboratory testing, where necessary. Training of staff to carry out on-site
testing in a reliable and secure way is straightforward (ensuring chain of
custody of samples, and screening strategy etc.).
Certified testing can be carried by laboratories if
required e.g. following a positive test. Additionally, laboratory testing of
hair samples can identify what drugs may have been taken over a three-month
period. This is particularly valuable for pre-screening new employees or annual
screening of safety personnel, as this test makes it very difficult for the
personnel being tested to "fake it".
Each of these test methods' have their uses and forms
part of a battery of effective on-site screening methods. To this can be added
forensic laboratory testing where immunoassay/gas chromatography/mass
spectrometry techniques can be applied when matters may be legal or
11. Range of Substances that can be Tested
Rapid and accurate screening for a very wide range of
substances is now possible. The most prevalent substances that can be tested
- Tricyclic anti-depressants
Many of these substances can even be tested for
together in a single multi-test, making testing very cost-effective. On-site
testing should be backed up by a certified laboratory test, if such testing
proves positive, especially if there are legal or employment issues.
Laboratory testing enables an even wider range of
tests to be carried out and, in the case of hair, substance abuse can be
detected over a 3 month period.
12. Alcohol and Drugs in the Body
Many of the substances mentioned above remain in the
body a surprising length of time. For example:
||Period Detectable in
||2 to 4 days
||12 hours up to 3 days
||Up to 30 days.
||2 to 4 days
||1 to 2 days
As already noted, human hair will indicate any
substance taken over the previous 3 months.
All organisations involved in activities affecting the
safety and security, should have a Drugs Policy. Where appropriate, such
organisations should also introduce drugs screening as a pro-active and
preventative measure to reduce the risks posed by substance abuse. The
prevalence of drugs in the wider community means that substance abuse is a real
and genuine risk to the travelling public, to public confidence and to the
commercial well-being of organisations working in the transport industry. Drugs
and alcohol screening is low cost, accurate and effective. Screening offers
many benefits and the possibility of not only improving performance and
reducing commercial risk, but also improving the operational safety and
security of the transport industry.
Please call AAT for further support on Drugs and Alcohol