Drug use linked to airplane accidents


Drug tests of airline personnel are three times more likely to come back positive after a crash or other accident than when testing is done at random times, a government-funded study shows.

“We wanted to see whether drug violations by employees are associated with their risk of being in an aviation accident,” Dr. Guohua Li, the lead investigator on the study, told Reuters Health.
“Our answer seems to be a very clear yes.”

He emphasized that illicit drug use is still rare among airline employees, and said the industry — which is considered the pinnacle of safety — can pat itself on the back, Reuters reports.

Drug testing is common across a variety of workplaces in the U.S., but it remains controversial and little is known about its impact on occupational safety.

Li, of Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, and his colleagues examined nearly 5,000 drug tests taken from employees after accidents. (An aviation accident is defined as causing severe injuries or more than $50,000 in damage.)

The researchers compared those results to more than a million random drug tests. The tests search for evidence of drugs such as marijuana, cocaine and heroin.

Following accidents, 91 employees — averaging 18 out of every 1,000 — tested positive for drug use.

Random testing found just six out of every 1,000 employees tested positive.
“This is a very, very rare occurrence,” when compared to other industries such as trucking, where drug use is estimated at 20 to 30 out of every 1,000 employees, Li said.

What’s especially encouraging, he added, are the results from the flight crew, including pilots. Drug use among them was even scarcer, with only five out of every 10,000 random tests of crew members returned a positive result.

After accidents, just two out of 436 tests — or less than five out of every 1,000 — of flight crew members tested positive for illicit drug use.

The research team’s data came from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which mandates random and post-accident testing of crew members, maintenance staff, flight instructors, ground security coordinators, air traffic controllers and other employees for the major airlines, commuter airlines and air taxis.

Their study looked at 10 years of tests, from 1995 to 2005. The job-specific results reflect only the years 2003 to 2005.

The authors say drug violations “play a small role” in aviation accidents, and they attribute roughly one out of every 100 accidents to illicit drug use.