The aviation industry in the United States must comply with the Department of Transportation (DOT) drug and alcohol testing program regulations. Periodic inspections are conducted by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in order to make sure that employers, contractors, and individuals in the aviation industry are in compliance with all relevant regulations. (Learn more in 8 Things Employers Should Know About DOT Drug and Alcohol Testing).

You can think of these inspections as a kind of audit. Every aspect of a company’s workplace drug and alcohol testing program is subject to review as part of an FAA Drug Abatement Program inspection. Throughout this inspection, paperwork and processes will be reviewed and key people will be interviewed.

During a comprehensive review, every aspect of a company’s workplace drug and alcohol testing program will be reviewed. However, not every review will be comprehensive. The inspectors sometimes conduct reviews focused on a specific aspect or aspects of an employer’s program. Focused reviews are sometimes scheduled as a follow up to check on an area-of-concern or a noncompliance finding.

The immediate objective of these inspections is to determine whether the drug and alcohol testing program the company has in place meets all the legal requirements of 49 CFR part 40, “Procedures for Transportation Workplace Drug Testing Programs” and 14 CFR part 120, “Drug and Alcohol Testing Program.”

The long term objective of these inspections is to ensure the safety of the traveling public and the people working in the aviation industry. The most obvious focus of the drug and alcohol testing program is to ensure that pilots and flight crews don’t fly while under the influence. However, these regulations extend to anyone who has a safety-sensitive position. This includes mechanics who repair and maintain aircraft and ground crews who guide aircraft in and out of gates or load baggage and cargo.

The Comprehensive Inspection: A Five-Part Review

A comprehensive, or thorough, inspection reviews all aspects of an employer’s drug and alcohol testing program.

The FAA publishes a drug abatement program inspection guide which outlines in detail each area that will be reviewed and the information that will be gathered.

A comprehensive inspection is organized and conducted as a five-part process.

Part 1: Basic Information Gathering
The comprehensive inspection process begins with gathering basic information about the company, its drug and alcohol testing program, and its employees.

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The size of the company and all its employees in safety-sensitive positions are identified. People in key roles, like the DER and Service Agent positions, are identified. (Learn more in What Are The Differences Between A DER, A SAP and a TAP?). Every step of the mandatory testing program, from pre-employment testing through return-to-duty testing and follow-up testing are identified. Employee Assistance Program (EAP) and training programs are identified, and the location or locations of records are identified.

Part 2: Records Review
Next, relevant documents and records are examined.

The drug abatement program inspection guide includes an exhaustive list of documents and records related to every stage of the mandated drug and alcohol testing program. The inspectors expect that the employer will be able to locate these documents quickly and easily. They also expect the relevant documents to be complete and up-to-date.

Part 3: Collections Site Review
The inspectors will go to the place where samples are collected for drug and alcohol testing.

While at the collections site, the inspectors will observe a simulated collection. They will watch every step taken in the collection and testing process, documenting what they observe. They will evaluate the facility for things like privacy and security. They will review documents associated with notifying employees, collecting samples, forwarding samples to the testing lab, and receiving the results. The inspectors interview the people collecting the samples. One of the thing inspectors will ask about is the procedures they follow when faced with an unusual situation, like a shy bladder or refusal to cooperate.

Part 4: Medical Review Officer (MRO) Review
The inspectors interview the company’s MRO and review related documents.

The inspectors are interested in the MRO’s training and qualifications, and whether they are up-to-date. They also ask about record keeping and the procedures followed to make sure they comply with regulations.

5: Substance Abuse Professional (SAP) Review
When an employer has had an employee who has gone through return-to-duty and/or follow-up testing, the inspectors also meet with the company’s SAP.

Just as with the MRO, the inspectors are interested in the SAP’s training and qualifications and the procedures they follow. The inspectors want to make sure that qualifications are up-to-date and procedures are in compliance.

Possible Results of the Review

At the end of the inspection the FAA inspectors team shares their initial report with the employer. They hold a meeting, referred to as an outbriefing, between the inspecting team and the employer’s key people.

There are three basic outcomes possible: no findings, findings of noncompliance, and areas of concern.

A no-findings result means that the employer’s workplace drug and alcohol testing program complies with the relevant regulations. No changes or corrections are needed and the inspection process is done.

A finding of noncompliance means that one or more parts of the employer’s workplace drug and alcohol program do not meet the regulatory requirements.

An area-of-concern result means that one or more parts of the employer’s workplace drug and alcohol program, while meeting regulatory requirements, isn’t as strong as it could be.

When there’s a result of either noncompliance or an area-of-concern, the inspectors briefly outline their concerns during the outbriefing and look to the employer to commit to taking immediate corrective action. A Report of Inspection (ROI) letter will be issued by the FAA and the employer responds to the ROI with their specific plans for corrective action. In order to confirm that the corrective actions were taken, the FAA will monitor the employer’s follow up actions.

The outbriefing is also an opportunity for the employer to ask questions and get any needed clarifications. Having a clear understanding of the relevant regulations and where the employer’s program falls short is key for identifying the corrective action needed to get in compliance, have an effective drug and alcohol testing program, and ensure the safety of the traveling public and everyone working in the aviation industry.