When a conductor or another type of railway employee is involved in a train accident, the Federal Railroad Association (FRA) requires that the conductor is subjected to a drug test to determine if any controlled substances may have caused impairment and potentially been a contributing factor to the accident.
But the FRA recently decided to add non-prescription, over-the-counter drugs to the list of substances it tests for in an effort to better determine if those drugs may also have an impact on train operators’ ability to do their jobs safely.
FRA Study on Train Accidents
Recently, the FRA conducted a study of nearly 300 reported train accidents – 294 total accidents to be exact – between 2002 and 2009 that investigators had determined “human error” was at least partially the cause of the accident.
In approximately 80 percent of all of the train accident cases they reviewed, one or more employees on board the locomotive involved had taken at least one generic or brand name drug sometime prior to the accident.
In follow-up conversations about potential risks, railroad officials and researchers conceded that the actual number of employees who used non-controlled substances prior to a train accident was probably higher than 80 percent, because some employees likely either forgot or chose not to report any substances they were taking.
Non-Controlled Substance Use by Conductors
Granted, the term non-controlled substance is a broad one and can include any over-the-counter product ranging from sedating antihistamines – such as Benadryl – to herbal remedies or dietary supplements.
Although the effects of over-the-counter drugs are unlikely to cause impairment in the way that controlled substances do, railway officials say that they need to begin testing employees and collecting data in order to determine possible “unintended side effects” from medications that are mixed together or misused.
The FRA has received a number of responses to the rule, which went into effect March 5. Labor groups representing railroad employees are against it, claiming that the rule might discourage employees from using common drugs to recover from illness. However, the FRA maintains the stance that it will provide a more detailed understanding of the risks that even common medications can present.
Train accidents are very rare, yet extremely dangerous to both employees and passengers alike. The rule also includes a provision that will keep the test results confidential while the FRA continues to collect and study the data in order to determine if there are any risks associated with specific drugs. The overall goal is to determine if regular medications cause any side-effects that will impede employees’ ability to safely do their jobs.