Safety is of critical importance in your workplace. There are numerous laws and regulations that you must comply with on a daily basis that are designed to keep your workers and workplace safe. It would seem logical that the same legislative diligence would apply to workers in safety sensitive positions but unfortunately, that’s not the case. Apart from Department of Transportation (DOT) governed employees, there is remarkably little guidance for employers when it comes to safety sensitive positions. Here is a guide to designating jobs as safety sensitive, why it matters and what it means for your workers and workplace.

What Is A Safety Sensitive Position?

Typically, a safety sensitive position is defined as a job in which the employee is directly responsible for his or own safety or the safety of other people. It can also refer to a job where an impairment, such as drug or alcohol use, can put a worker or others at risk of harm. (Learn more in Prescription Opioids and Safety Sensitive Work).

Examples of safety sensitive positions at your site could include a heavy equipment operator, mechanics, engineers, and chemists, but there are hundreds of positions that could potentially qualify. It depends on the circumstances of your particular operation.

Why Does It Matter?

Since they are generally at a greater risk for potential harm, workers in safety sensitive positions come with greater exposure for employers with respect to liability and possible downtime if incidents must be investigated.

Workers in safety sensitive positions can also be subject to more comprehensive drug testing and alcohol testing or, in the case of DOT covered employees, mandated drug and alcohol testing.

What Are The Current Regulations Regarding Safety Sensitive Positions?

A myriad of state and federal agencies are involved in regulating safety sensitive positions in the workplace, but few offer concrete guidelines for designating positions as safety sensitive.

DOT Regulations

DOT agencies have designated several industries as safety sensitive including those that fall under the auspices of the Federal Aviation Administration, Federal Railroad Administration and the U.S. Coast Guard, among others. Employees working for firms that are contracted to certain other agencies are also subject to special rules regarding safety sensitive positions. Several of these agencies have guidelines regarding which specific positions are considered safety sensitive but many do not. Often, the onus is on the employer to decide which positions are safety sensitive.

Federal Laws

DOT is not the only federal department or agency to weigh in on the concept of safety-sensitive positions. The Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) places limits on disability-related inquiries and medical examination requests unless these can be clearly demonstrated to be job-related and consistent with business necessity.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has also tackled safety sensitive positions, ruling in 2008, for example, that city bus drivers were not in safety sensitive positions, but police officers, firefighters and armed security guards are.

State Laws

Some states have attempted to clarify rules regarding the identification of safety sensitive positions, but again, these rules vary widely. The Connecticut Labour Commissioner has created a list of over 300 designated high risk or safety sensitive positions that can serve as a guideline for employers in this state. This list includes everything from aircraft mechanics to yard labourers. This list can also be a helpful starting point for businesses in other states.

Washington, D.C. has introduced a bill to change the definition of “safety-sensitive” positions to any position that includes duties and responsibilities involving the supervision, custody, and care of children and employee use of alcohol or drugs could lead to physical injury or death to the employee or the children or youth under their care. If passed this law will deem, teachers, coaches, and child workers as working in safety sensitive positions.

What Positions Can, Or Should I Deem Safety Sensitive In My Workplace?

To identify a position as safety-sensitive, you must be able to provide proof that the workers who do this job can pose a direct threat to their safety or to the safety of others. In other words, this worker’s inability, or impaired ability, to do the job can put people at risk.

The best approach to declaring a position safety-sensitive is to:

  • Create written policy that identifies safety sensitive positions and clearly lays out expectations and obligations for employees in those positions along with any penalties that may be imposed for contravening the policy. This should always include a clear policy regarding your drug and alcohol testing practices. (Learn more in Drug And Alcohol Program Best Practices).
  • Identify safety sensitive positions early so policy targets position rather than individuals.
  • Compile and maintain documentation that provides support for the identification of safety sensitive positions.

What Are The Responsibilities And Costs Related To Safety Sensitive Positions?

The designation of safety sensitive positions has become increasingly important, particularly given the number of states legalizing medical and recreational marijuana. Designating safety sensitive positions within your company affords several protections which allow you to test for drugs and alcohol. And, for DOT covered employees, drug and alcohol tests are mandated. Regardless, employers have a duty to minimize employee exposure to risk, provide a safe workplace for employees and protect the general public. For safety sensitive positions this typically means a comprehensive drug and alcohol testing program that includes random testing.

There are some costs associated with the initial designation of safety sensitive positions. A well-written policy that clearly lays out which positions are considered safety sensitive in your company alongside your company drug and alcohol policy is an important first step. Legal advice that takes into consideration both federal and state regulations is also a good idea. Then, of course, there are the costs of implementing the appropriate drug and alcohol testing program for your company.