The U.S. government wants to expand post-accident drug testing for railroad workers to include prescription and over-the-counter medications such as Benadryl, citing “prevalent” and increasing use among employees.
The Federal Railroad Administration, in a proposed rule published Wednesday in the Federal Register, said evidence from earlier accidents shows existing tests for alcohol and illegal drugs should do more to protect safety.
Tramadol, a synthetic opiate pain killer, and antihistamines including Benadryl would be tested under the rule. The agency said it may expand the list.
“Both tramadol and the drugs in the sedating antihistamine category have potential side effects that could impair an employee's cognitive abilities,” the FRA said in the proposal.
The rail regulator since 1985 has tested train operators involved in serious accidents for alcohol and illegal drugs, including cocaine and marijuana. Tests for both legal and illegal drugs are conducted after almost all fatal aviation accidents.
The FRA cited a 2006 Boston University study that found 82 percent of U.S. adults said they took at least one prescription or over-the-counter drug, dietary supplement or herbal remedy each week.
The FRA found 9.3 percent of urine samples collected and frozen after previous accidents tested positive for at least one over-the-counter drug that can impair performance, according to the proposal.
The samples were originally reported as testing negative for drugs, according to the FRA. The agency found positive results for prescription and over-the-counter medications in 14 of 150 samples when they were retested.
The head of a transportation worker labor union said it will give this a “very careful” look.
“Transportation workers do work with pain and catch colds,” Edward Wytkind, president of the AFL-CIO's Transportation Trades Department, said in a Twitter post.
The National Transportation Safety Board, which investigates rail and other accidents, had recommended that safety regulators for railroads, transit, trucks, buses and ships require enough post-accident toxicological testing for over-the-counter and common prescription medications to determine what role they play in accidents.
“We need to study the FRA's proposal but generally speaking, Union Pacific supports processes that improve safety,” Tom Lange, a spokesman for the biggest U.S. railroad by revenue, said in an email.
Spokesmen for the three other largest U.S. railroads, including Warren Buffett's BNSF Railway, either didn't immediately respond to requests for comment or had no immediate comment.