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Drugs and Alcohol Screening:
Active Approach to Safety Management

Kim O'Neil
Advanced Aviation Technology Ltd.


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.

1. Introduction

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 real control.

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 "irresponsible behaviour".

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 operations.

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:

  • Pre-employment
  • New employees
  • Safety personnel
  • Security personnel
  • Personnel holding responsibilities
  • Personnel operating in secure areas (e.g. airside)
  • 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:

  • Saliva
  • Urine
  • 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 disciplinary.

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 "on-site" include:

  • Alcohol
  • Amphetamines
  • Barbiturates
  • Benzodiazepines
  • Cannabis
  • Cocaine
  • Metamphetamines
  • Methadone
  • Opiates
  • Phencyclidine
  • Tricyclic anti-depressants
  • Ecstasy

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:

Substance Period Detectable in Body
Amphetamines 2 to 4 days
Cocaine 12 hours up to 3 days
Marijuana Up to 30 days.
Methamphetamines 2 to 4 days
Opiates 1 to 2 days

As already noted, human hair will indicate any substance taken over the previous 3 months.

13. Summary

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 Screening.

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Advanced Aviation Technology Ltd.
The Old Post Office,
The Street, Compton,
Surrey GU3 1ED. ENGLAND.
Tel. 44 1483 811 311.

Email: kim.oneil@aatl.net

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