NTSB: Coast Guard’s Post-Accident Drug and Alcohol Testing Standards Are Too Lax

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November 28, 2012

The NTSB’s investigation into the 2007 Cosco Busan allision in San Francisco was one of 5 recent incidents that the NTSB looked into prior to the this week’s recommendation.

The National Transportation Safety Board on Tuesday issued a recommendation to the U.S. Coast Guard that would subject Coast Guard personnel involved in serious marine incidents to timely post-accident drug and alcohol testing as is required for merchant mariners.

Currently, Coast Guard regulations require that merchant mariners be drug and alcohol tested within specified time periods following a marine accident or serious incident while Coast Guard military and civilian personnel involved in similar events are subject to much lower, less stringent standards that only narrowly defines a timeframe for testing.

For example, although merchant mariners are required to provide a breath sample for alcohol testing within two hours of an accident, no specific timeframe for the test is provided for Coast Guard military personnel; Coast Guard civilian personnel are not required to submit to an alcohol test at all. And although the allowable blood alcohol level (BAC) for merchant mariners must be less than .04%, the Coast Guard has not specified an allowable BAC for its own personnel. The Coast Guard also does not specify a timeframe for post-accident drug testing for its military personnel, while requiring all merchant mariners to be drug tested within 32 hours of an accident.

The NTSB argues that considering Coast Guard personnel perform a number of safety-sensitive maritime roles similar to those of merchant mariners, such as operating vessels and monitoring vessel traffic, postaccident toxicological testing for Coast Guard personnel should “at least be equivalent to the standards for merchant mariners.”

The NTSB’s recommendation is based on investigations into five recent marine accidents including the 2007 Cosco Busan allision with San Francisco Bay Bridge, a 2008 collision between a passenger/car ferry and a coast guard cutter on Block Island Sound, and the October 2011 collision between a 799-foot-long tankship and the equally large MSC Nederland containership in the Houston Ship Channel near Houston, among others.

Specifically, the National Transportation Safety Board makes the following safety recommendations to the US Coast Guard:

  • Align your standards for postaccident toxicological testing of Coast Guard military personnel with the requirements specified in 46 Code of Federal Regulations 4.06-3. (M-12-8)
  • Align your standards for postaccident toxicological testing of Coast Guard civilian personnel, seeking appropriate legislative authority if necessary, with the requirements specified in 46 Code of Federal Regulations 4.06-3. (M-12-9)
  • Disseminate guidance within the Coast Guard so that commanding officers have unambiguous instruction detailing the requirements for timely drug and alcohol testing of Coast Guard military and civilian personnel whose work performance may be linked to a serious marine incident. (M-12-10)

The full safety recommendation letter is available at http://go.usa.gov/g2eT.

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