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article imageReport: Amtrak bosses turn blind eye to drug, alcohol problems

By Donald Quinn     Oct 1, 2012 in Business
A semi derailed an Amtrak train in California today but the company is faced with a far more severe derailment in the form of drug and alcohol abuse by its employees. A recent scathing IG report calls the company to task.
An Amtrak was derailed after being hit by a semi in south Fresno which caused dozens of people to sustain minor injuries and left the driver of the semi trapped in his vehicle. From all the reports it seems evident that the accident was caused by the truck driver rather than the Amtrak driver which is not surprising either considering that
“Every 16 minutes, a person is killed or sustains injuries in accidents involving 18-wheeler's, tractor-trailers or semi-trucks” according to Truck Accident Lawyers
With that being said however, Amtrak has been facing a litany of criticism in the media and general public recently for a study released by its own Inspector General. The internal audit was carried out by the nation’s largest passenger rail carrier and made some startling and very alarming finds.
According to the study the use of alcohol and drugs among the employees of Amtrak has gone up steadily since 2006. Today Amtrak employees stand at a fail rate 51% higher than the national average for railway companies in the area of drug testing. The majority of employees that have failed drug tests have tested positive for cocaine and marijuana in their system. Bearing in mind that these tests are usually done when the employee is at work, and hence engaged in the activities they would normally perform to get consumers safely to their destination, it is a safe assumption that Amtrak employees are 51% more likely to be high or drunk when operating or supporting operations on a train.
In 2011 Amtrak reported 17 employees had tested positive for drugs resulting in a rate that is Amtrak’s worst since 2007. The report found that based on the results, if all of the 4,454 so called “hours of service employees” in safety sensitive positions were tested, as few as 21 and as many as 65 workers would have tested positive for drugs. These “hours of service employees” in safety positions include engineers, conductors, and dispatchers which are critical positions to the running, operating, and safety of the trains and their passengers.
The report also makes a point of noting that Amtrak will only fire an employee, safety critical or not, after they have failed a drug test at least twice.
"These conditions increase the risk that a serious accident will occur that involves drugs or alcohol," the report warns
In addition the investigation found that Amtrak is only testing a third of its 4,454 strong work force. The Inspector General categorically states in the report that the $1.5 million dollars being spent by the railway giant is simply not doing enough, nor are the tests being conducted frequently enough. As a result the consumers, passengers are being put at risk.
Almost as frightening is the fact that the report indicated that Amtrak’s upper management was simply unaware of the problem, let alone the magnitude of it. Until this report came out the management was not aware of the extent of the use and abuse of alcohol or drugs among their employees.
Federal Regulations require railroad companies to perform drug and alcohol screening of their employees. This regulation has been in place since the deadly Amtrak crash of 1987 in Maryland. In that accident the investigating team reached the conclusion that the engineer of the Conrail freight train was heavily under the influence of Marijuana. As a result he ran several stop lights before colliding with the Amtrak passenger train and killing sixteen people.
This however, has not been sufficient to ensure that the management of Amtrak takes appropriate steps to protect its passengers and to help employees that may have a substance abuse problem. In fact it seems that the senior management has turned a blind eye towards enforcing its own policies for testing employees and complying with Federal regulations.
According to its own policies officials are required to physically observe each employee for signs and symptoms of drug and alcohol use once every three months, on average. Amtrak is further required to randomly perform drug testing on at least 25% of its employees in safety sensitive positions and alcohol testing on at least 10% of safety-sensitive positioned employees each year.
Amtrak’s senior management has not “demonstrated that controlling drugs and alcohol is a clear priority at Amtrak, thereby making it difficult to manage the risk that drug and alcohol use poses to its employees, passengers and the public,” the report said.
In email correspondence Steve Kulm, a spokesman for Amtrak stated that the senior management of the company was aware of the report’s findings and agreed that action needed to be taken.
He said “Amtrak runs a safe railroad today and we are committed to making further safety improvements for passengers and employees,”
With regard to remedies the report made several recommendations. The primary among these was to increase the testing for drug and alcohol among employees. The recommendations also include reviewing results and comparing them to industry averages, demonstrating that drug and alcohol control is a priority for Amtrak senior management, improving the physical observation of employees and increased training of supervisors. Officers are already required to physically observe each employee for signs drug or alcohol use at least once every 3 months, seeking out behaviors that show a potential pattern attributed to the use of drugs or alcohol.
At the same time, ridership on Amtrak is at an all-time high. Last year alone over 30.2 million riders took Amtrak and gave the company an increase in passengers for eight of the last nine years. While the company is still heavily subsidized by the Federal Government, it seems that its senior officials are willing to turn their heads in the face of a growing problem. A problem which threatens, not only the reputation of the organization, but also the lives of its employees, passengers, and the general public.
More about Amtrak, Amtrak crash, Drugs, Alcohol, Report
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