Use of impairing drugs in Safety-Sensitive workplaces can be dangerous for all concerned. A Substance Abuse Professional (SAP) can help.

This is a brief overview of what a Substance abuse professional (SAP) is, why they are necessary, and what they do according to the Department of Transport (DOT, U.S.).

 When an employee is involved in a safety-related incident, a near miss, has self-disclosed problems with substance misuse, or has otherwise been deemed unfit for duty due to substance misuse, the organization can enlist the services of a Substance Abuse Professional (SAP). The SAP’s duties are to assess the substance use of that employees and make recommendations. The SAP must then provide a written report directly to the designated employer representative (DER) of the organization highlighting their specific recommendations concerning a course of treatment and a possible return-to-work plan. This plan can include, but is not limited too, education, in-patient treatment, follow-up testing and aftercare monitoring.

When a safety-sensitive employee has been deemed unfit for duty due to substance misuse, that employee cannot perform any safety-sensitive duties for any employer until the SAP assessment-based recommendations have been completed. The employee must also take part in and remain compliant with any follow-up care plan the SAP recommends. This will include a return-to-duty alcohol/drug test and a defined number of unannounced alcohol/drug tests over the period of one year. Other after care requirements may include counselling, support group attendance, and out-patient treatment programs. 

A SAP assessment is a comprehensive face-to-face interview. This evaluation includes, but is not limited too, family history, drug and alcohol use history, medical history, education history, current medications, and other key factors of the employee’s childhood, family, social and work history. This will tell the SAP whether this is a matter of substance misuse or if the employee is struggling with a substance use disorder (SUD). Based on the findings of the SAP assessment, the SAP must recommend a course of action that the employee must demonstrate compliance with to return to safety-sensitive duties.

Education can be formally provided by a qualified professional or agency and may also include self-help groups (e.g. Alcoholics Anonymous) and/or community lectures where attendance can be independently verified. If the employee requires support beyond education, the SAP will recommend a treatment plan. This may include, but is not limited too, In- patient hospitalization (e.g. treatment center), partial in-patient treatment, out-patient counselling, and aftercare. 

The SAP is a key player in the employer’s decision to put a safety-sensitive employee back into their safety-sensitive duties after a substance misuse incident has occurred. Often times the entire weight of that decision is carried by the SAP. The responsibility to the public is tremendous. It is important to know that the SAP is neither a representative for the organization, or an advocate for the employee. The SAP’s loyalty lies with safety. It is due to this responsibility that the SAP must not take into consideration any claim by an employee or employer; declaring the test was inaccurate or unjust, or attempting to mitigate the seriousness of the violation. Personal opinion and bias should also be left out of the decision-making process. The SAP may also consult the Medical Review Officer (MRO) that has reviewed the employee’s drug test for feedback without consent from the employee.

In conclusion, it is easy for an employer to unwittingly put themselves into a situation where an employee could argue that due diligence was not observed. This could easily result in grievances, costly court proceedings and tarnished reputations. Members of an organization may also unwittingly downplay substance misuse or SUD in the work place due to absence of focused training and experience with the fit for duty and reasonable suspicion processes. A SAP, specifically trained in this area, could mitigate these problems by providing assessment and recommendation services along with education and intervention training. This could assist the organization in avoiding consequences ranging from lost production, serious injury or possible death of employees or members of the public at large so that everyone goes home safe.

Source: US Department of Transportation (DOT) Rule 49 CFR Part 40