Printed headline: Auditing Audits
The Office of Inspector General (OIG)—the government watchdog charged with bettering performance and efficiencies within the Department of Transportation—in June announced a series of audits to evaluate the effectiveness of drug-testing-program oversight in the transportation sector. The first report released reveals deficiencies in the way the FAA’s Drug Abatement Division prioritizes certificate-holder inspections.
The closer look was prompted by the National Transportation Safety Board’s concern over the “epidemic of impairment” in transportation, given marijuana decriminalization and the significant rise in pain-medication abuse. During the year-long FAA audit, the OIG focused on the agency’s risk-based approach for selecting and prioritizing auditees, but found that there was none.
Contrary to the FAA’s own risk-management policy (Order 8040), the OIG concluded that the agency does not prioritize drug abatement division inspections based on data analysis or risk assessment. Instead, audit plans are driven by quotas and an individual scheduler’s judgment. Quarterly inspection schedules are largely influenced by the concentration of certificate holders in a particular area—where an inspector can accomplish multiple audits in a single trip—and employee bargaining agreements, which compel schedulers to allot more desirable location assignments to senior inspectors.
The OIG ultimately criticized the emphasis on the quantity of inspections and subjective decision-making practices and says that, given the absence of any discernible risk assessment, the system does not effectively target companies that pose the greatest risk to safety. It scrutinized the sole agency-identified risk factor used in the scheduling process: companies employing more than 1,000 safety-sensitive personnel are inspected every 30-36 months. The OIG concluded that the agency did not conduct a proper analysis when it designated company size as a risk influencer and suggests that it instead consider factors such as compliance history and the type of work conducted and its impact on safety.
Looking at the numbers, a risk-based approach is sorely needed. According to the OIG, 34 drug abatement division inspectors from three regional offices are responsible for auditing programs at approximately 7,000 regulated aviation companies in the U.S. That does not include companies that provide drug- and alcohol-testing services such as testing labs, which are also subject to FAA oversight.
While the division conducts over 1,000 drug and alcohol inspections each year, the report found that 17% of aviation companies required to have a drug and alcohol program have never been inspected. A handful of those unaudited organizations are more than 30 years old. Of those companies that have not yet had a drug abatement audit, 20% are Part 145 maintenance facilities.
While a risk-based approach may not change the fact that some companies with low risk factors are never audited, the OIG emphasized the need to “prioritize” the workload. “With thousands of companies covered by Federal drug and alcohol testing regulations, FAA’s Drug Abatement Division cannot inspect every company every year,” said the OIG. “Therefore, the division must make strategic decisions on targeting its oversight and selecting companies which need to be inspected.”
In addition to its endorsement for a data-driven and risk-based scheduling program, the OIG recommended better coordination and communication between the Drug Abatement Division and Flight Standards inspectors to confirm certificate-holder information on the inspection schedule. According to the report, 33% of scheduled inspections were canceled between 2014 and 2017, 9% due to inaccurate information about the company’s location, certification status or in-business status. The OIG recommends better sharing of information between the two divisions to ensure Drug Abatement inspectors have the most current information available to efficiently and effectively complete testing inspection schedules.
The agency acknowledged many of the OIG-identified deficiencies in a June 2018 internal report, which recognized the need for better “qualitative and quantitative data” to measure safety risk. The agency concurred with the OIG recommendations and said it plans to deploy the Aerospace Medicine Safety Information System program—which will allow for automated scheduling based on risk analysis—by 2021.
In addition to pressure from the OIG, the new tool is being driven by the agency’s integrated oversight philosophy. The policy, developed in response to the administrator’s risk-based decision-making strategic initiative, takes a data-informed approach to risk-based oversight across the FAA. It is intended to work in coordination with the FAA Compliance Philosophy, which focuses on nonenforcement methods to address unintentional noncompliance.
The OIG report found about 7% of random drug tests for safety-sensitive employees are positive; 1% test positive for alcohol. Since 1990, nearly 60,000 safety-sensitive employees have been “identified and removed” from employment for drug and alcohol violations.