Metro needs to better track workers’ ‘fitness’ when it comes to drug testing, physicals

D.C.’s Metro system needs to better track whether employees in sensitive positions are fit for the job when they show up for work, according to an audit from the Washington Metrorail Safety Commission.

The document, released Tuesday, probed the transit agency’s “fitness for duty” programs for employees involved in “safety sensitive” positions, which include rail controllers, train operators and maintenance personnel, among others.

It concluded that the Metro system needed to make sure workers aren’t fatigued; don’t have untreated medical issues that could incapacitate or hinder them; or aren’t under the influence of drugs and alcohol.

The programs help monitor treatment of medical conditions and protect against hazards such as fatigue “that would otherwise pose a risk of incapacitating, for example, a train operator at the controls of a moving train,” the audit said.

But auditors noted a number of deficiencies in Metro’s programs, saying the agency ignored requirements that employees in certain positions undergo physical exams and kept poor drug- and alcohol-testing records.

“Metrorail cannot reasonably ensure that its employees and contractors who are conducting safety sensitive duties are free from impairment that could cause incapacitation,” the report concluded.

Physical exams

Metro policies require physical exams for employees in sensitive positions at least every two years. But Metro has not clearly communicated the requirements to employees “and does not take steps to ensure the physicals are completed,” auditors wrote.

“There are many Metrorail employees who go without the required physicals for many years, and that many Metrorail employees are not aware of this requirement,” the report said, adding that that heightens the risk “that a safety sensitive employee is operating a train or conducting other critical functions with undiagnosed or untreated conditions such as diabetes, high blood pressure and sleep apnea that, when not properly managed, increase the risk of loss of consciousness.”

The safety commission also said that Metro’s fatigue-management policies — which have been caught up in years of haggling between management and employee unions — depend on “only fragmented data” for the specific hours worked for many personnel. The commission said that makes it difficult, and in some cases impossible, to monitor hazards such as fatigue.

Drug, alcohol testing

When it comes to drug and alcohol testing, Metro is required to test employees after any incidents under a policy from the U.S. Department of Transportation.

The safety commission commended Metro for additional layers of testing, including regular random testing. But auditors who reviewed documents said they found hundreds of random tests were never completed, with no reasons — such as the employee was on a long-term vacation — provided in documentation.

Overall, the report recommended Metro improve its record-keeping practices and workflow, instead of the hodgepodge of primarily paper records it has now.

“Multiple people interviewed for this audit identified the lack of centralized electronic records systems as a risk that limits tracking and trending of data,” the report stated. Despite the fact that Metro is one of the largest rail systems in the U.S., “individuals interviewed for this audit acknowledged the rudimentary nature of these records.”

The report claims that Metro “hindered” the commission’s “efforts to proceed with this audit,” apparently claiming it was too close in time to a separate audit of drug and alcohol testing required by the Federal Transit Administration. The safety commission also said that Metro withheld information requested by auditors and made “misleading statements.”

In a brief statement provided to WTOP, Sherri Ly, a Metro spokeswoman said: “Metro appreciates the work of the WMSC, which noted several positive practices and proactive steps already taken to improve fitness of duty programs. We are reviewing the final report and will respond with appropriate corrective action plans.”

Later Tuesday, Ly said in an email to WTOP, “We respectfully disagree with several statements in the report, including that Metro withheld information from the WMSC. We will outline these concerns through the CAP process.”

WTOP’s Kate Ryan contributed to this report.

Jack Moore

Jack Moore joined WTOP.com as a digital writer/editor in July 2016. Previous to his current role, he covered federal government management and technology as the news editor at Nextgov.com, part of Government Executive Media Group.

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