How to return a driver to duty following a drug or alcohol violation

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Drug and alcohol violations quickly sideline drivers, creating stress for all parties involved. When drivers fail or refuse testing – or when carriers have concrete knowledge of a driver’s illegal drug or alcohol usage – they must be immediately removed from the driver’s seat. The journey back can be daunting for drivers and carriers alike.
The U.S. Department of Transportation has provided a detailed framework surrounding driver drug and alcohol violations – including return-to-work procedures. Carriers should use these policies to create their own violation playbooks, from the immediate aftermath to long-term follow-up procedures.
Immediately after the incident
As soon as a carrier learns of a driver’s DOT drug and alcohol violation, that driver must be removed from performing any safety-sensitive functions. That, of course, includes driving a truck.
Depending on the circumstances surrounding the violation, the carrier may find themselves accountable for both making arrangements to get the original driver home safely and finding a new driver to continue the run.
Carriers or medical review officers, depending on the violation, are required to report all violations to the Drug and Alcohol Clearinghouse. Once this report is made, the driver will be switched to prohibited status. Beginning later this year, drivers’ CDL or CLP licenses will also be downgraded once their state learns of the prohibited status.
Additionally, carriers will need to provide any drivers that fail drug or alcohol tests – including pre-employment tests – with a list of potential substance abuse professionals.
It is important that carriers understand the restrictions in place for drivers with active violations. Carriers cannot assign these drivers to non-CDL commercial vehicles in order to sidestep the return-to-duty procedure.
“A CDL driver who is in a prohibited status in the Clearinghouse can’t be reassigned to a non-CDL CMV to avoid the return-to-duty process. The regulations state that the driver is restricted from operating any CMV until the necessary steps are completed,” Kathy Close, J. J. Keller subject matter expert, cautions.
Substance abuse professional program
Drivers must be proactive about following established DOT guidelines in order to return to duty after a violation. This includes completing a treatment or education program with a substance abuse professional (SAP).
In order to do this, drivers must schedule an SAP evaluation and designate the professional in their personal Clearinghouse account. During the evaluation, the substance abuse professional will determine the extent of the driver’s drug or alcohol problem and prescribe a course of treatment. The SAP will enter the completed steps to the driver’s Clearinghouse profile.
Once the driver completes the assigned treatment, they must meet with the SAP again to determine whether or not their efforts were successful.
If treatment is deemed successful, the professional enters the completed steps into the Clearinghouse, along with the driver’s eligibility to return to duty. The professional creates a report outlining the follow-up testing plan. However, the plan is not uploaded to the Clearinghouse. The employer must obtain a copy from the SAP. If it is not considered successful, however, the driver must continue to work with the SAP until they are ready to return to duty.
Return-to-duty testing
When drivers are ready to return to work, the carrier must acquire a copy of the SAP report and confirm the driver’s eligibility in the Clearinghouse database before putting them back behind the wheel.
The SAP will require a drug and/or alcohol test depending on what was learned during the evaluations. A return-to-duty drug test is under direct observation. When the driver passes the test, carriers must report it to the Clearinghouse to have the driver’s prohibited status removed. This allows drivers to return to safety-sensitive functions, like operating commercial vehicles.
When new policies are enacted later this year regarding downgraded licenses, this step will also allow drivers to regain their CDL status.
If carriers fail to ensure drivers complete these steps, they cannot legally reseat previously prohibited drivers.
After returning to work
The SAP report will outline the need for any ongoing counseling or other treatment, as well as the duration of the follow-up testing plan.
Drivers coming off prohibited status must complete a minimum of six tests within 12 months of returning to duty, and frequent testing requirements can last for up to five years at the recommendation of the substance abuse professional.
Follow-up drug tests are unannounced and completed under direct supervision. If a driver passes all the follow-up tests, the carrier must report the completion to the Clearinghouse.
Employment changes
Changing employers or rejoining the workforce after a break in employment can be complicated after a drug or alcohol violation. Drivers and carriers alike should be aware of what the process of onboarding an employee with unresolved testing violations looks like.
During the hiring process, the pre-employment Clearinghouse query will alert new employers of unresolved testing violations resulting in prohibited status, as well as incomplete follow-up testing programs.
“Clearinghouse queries are a great tool for new employers to know whether a driver has outstanding steps following a reported violation. A consortium/third-party administrator (C/TPA) can assist in requesting your new hire and annual queries, and review the query results, so an unqualified driver doesn’t mistakenly operate your commercial vehicles,” Close said. “A C/TPA can also help carriers arrange follow-up testing, so it is not forgotten about once a driver returns to duty.”
No amount of time will remove the unresolved violation from the Clearinghouse. This means that drivers who switch employers or take a break after a violation still need to complete the return-to-duty and follow-up programs.
New employers that wish to move forward with these applicants must contact the substance abuse professional for the follow-up program if the SAP program was completed. This will allow carriers to access the driver’s testing schedule. New employers should also contact former employers – with the driver’s written consent – to find out where the process left off and continue with it.
Legally (and safely) getting a driver back behind the wheel after a drug or alcohol violation is a time-consuming and often frustrating experience for both drivers and carriers. Understanding the policies in place can alleviate some of the stress and confusion of the multi-step process.
Navigating these steps can be simplified with the assistance of a reliable outsource service specializing in drug & alcohol compliance.
It is possible for drivers to continue their careers after a violation, but it requires a group effort on the part of drivers, carriers and substance abuse professionals.

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