What Is DOT Compliance?

By Cara O'Neill - Updated February 12, 2018
Laboratory

The Department of Transportation is the federal agency responsible for protecting the traveling public and keeping the country's transportation system safe. One way the DOT accomplishes its mission is by ensuring that transportation employees in safety-sensitive positions – such as the operators of planes, trains and buses – are not using drugs or alcohol on the job. “DOT compliance” means that the employer of safety-sensitive employees is maintaining the required employee drug and alcohol testing programs.

Safety-Sensitive Employees

Airline pilots, cruise captains, truck drivers, bus drivers, train conductors and subway operators are all responsible for the safety of large numbers of people inside their vehicles and in the surrounding areas. The DOT calls these workers safety-sensitive employees. The employers of safety-sensitive employees are required by federal law to have DOT-compliant drug and alcohol-testing programs in place and regularly test their workers to make sure they can safely do their jobs.

DOT Drug Testing

Federal regulations require employers of safety-sensitive workers to test for alcohol, marijuana, cocaine, amphetamines, methamphetamine, phencyclidine – more commonly known as PCP – and opiates such as codeine, heroin and morphine. The rules allow safety-sensitive employees to take over-the-counter and prescription medications as long as a doctor says doing so will not impair their abilities to perform their jobs safely.

Drug Testing Frequency

Testing typically occurs before a company hires a new employee, after an accident, if there are signs that an employee is under the influence of alcohol or drugs and after an employee returns from leave due to a drug- or alcohol-related rule violation. Employers also randomly test safety-sensitive employees for drugs and alcohol use even if they do not show signs of being under the influence.

Why Random Testing Is Allowed

The Fourth Amendment to the Constitution does not allow searches in the absence of probable cause, including testing employees for drugs and alcohol if there is no reason to believe they are under the influence. The rule is different for safety-sensitive employees because federal law regards the safety of the public as more important than an employee’s individual privacy interests. For example, it is more important to prevent a drunk airline pilot from parking the plane in an airport lobby than it is to protect his privacy by waiting for objective symptoms of alcohol use before administering a test. The bottom-line is that if someone wants to fly a passenger plane, transport flammable chemicals or guide a speeding locomotive for a living, he must agree to give up some personal rights for the good of the public.

Alcohol Testing Protocol

A screening or breath alcohol technician administers a DOT alcohol test. If the initial screening determines less than .02 alcohol concentration, no further testing is required and no DOT action is taken. If .02 or higher concentration is present at screening, then a breath-testing device, or breathalyzer, must be used for a confirmation test. Depending on the confirmation testing results, no further action may be taken by DOT, the employee may temporarily be taken off duty, or may be immediately removed from safety-sensitive duties.

About the Author

An attorney for more than 20 years, Cara O'Neill currently practices in the areas of civil litigation, family law and bankruptcy. She also served as an Administrative Law Judge and taught undergraduate and graduate courses in the areas of employment law, business law and criminal law for a well-known university. Attending the University of the Pacific, McGeorge School of Law, she graduated a National member of the Order of the Barristers - an honor society recognizing excellence in courtroom advocacy. She is currently licensed in the state of California.

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