Owner Operators - The Grapevine

The Ins and Outs of Joining a Consortium


By Wayne Schooling

Implementing your Controlled Substances Use and Alcohol Misuse Program is a significant undertaking. It will involve planning, contracting, administrative, legal, and monitoring efforts, which even some large employers may find among the most complex and demanding elements of their safety programs. Small employers may be more seriously challenged.

One common method of reducing these challenges and their associated costs is to join a consortium for testing and related services. The term consortium is defined by the FMCSA regulations as including, but not limited to, a group of employers who join together to administer DOT drug and alcohol testing programs. FMCSA encourages all employers to consider the possible business advantages of joining a consortium. Moreover, FMCSA requires individual owner/drivers be in a random pool consisting of two or more persons (§382.103(b)).

The regulations allow you to join a consortium comprised of employers of any transportation modes subject to DOT alcohol and controlled substances testing regulations. If you're smart, you will pick a consortium that is accredited. If the consortium is nationally accredited that is even better. It practically assures you that you will have no problems if you follow the regulations.

Advantages of a Consortium

Employers who join a consortium generally do so for one or more of the following reasons:

  1. Lower costs
  2. Greater expertise
  3. Reduced administrative burden

Lower Costs

Like all businesses, controlled substance testing laboratories incur overhead cost (e.g., training, recordkeeping, reporting, billing, and other administrative activities) as part of doing business. The same is true of collection sites, BATs, MROs, and SAPs. When only a relatively few tests are conducted or a few drivers are evaluated, these costs on a per unit basis can be substantial. When a larger number of tests are conducted or drivers are evaluated, the overhead costs can be spread over a much larger base, and the per-unit costs are minimized as economies of scale are achieved.

Consortiums allow several small purchasers to combine their service needs and to buy in bulk, thereby realizing substantial savings.

Greater Expertise

The FMCSA and DOT regulations are not simple. The main reason in using an accredited consortium is for the greater expertise. By being accredited this means that the consortiums facilities, operations and personnel meet the highest standards in the areas of regulatory compliance, client confidentially, accountability, company service standards, operational practices, business ethics, and professional competency.

The DOT regulations establish minimum standards. Many decisions are left to local management. Typically, management's position will be reflected in your policy statement and your operating procedures. Beyond this, however, neither FMCSA nor any other organization can anticipate everything that will arise when you implement your program. That is why choosing an accredited consortium it so important.

Many of the issues left to local option (e.g., number of random pools, when random testing of over the road drivers will occur) can have significant effects on program costs and efficacy, and should be carefully considered as you develop your policy. A consortium, particularly one with a professional manager, can help you decide which one of the permissible approaches is best for your company.

Regardless of who has responsibility for your controlled substance use and alcohol misuse program, that manager of a non-accredited consortium will almost certainly have additional job responsibilities. In cases of small employers and owner operators, those other responsibilities may be especially varied, and some of them may be quite dissimilar from administering a controlled substances use and alcohol misuse program.

Joining an accredited consortium allows employers to pool resources to hire a professional manager to run the program. Depending upon the size of the accredited consortium, the manager should be full time, and his or her salary as well as consortium expenses may be recovered through the money saved on expenditures for testing services.

A professional manager from an accredited consortium should know, for example, the many laws, regulations, policies, and procedures covering day-to-day fleet operations. The professional manager should be able to devote full attention to the testing regulations and testing program.

A manager from a non-accredited consortium would not necessarily be familiar with the day-to-day procedures of a trucking fleet. Many non-accredited consortiums such as local medical clinics do not provide you with all that is necessary for DOT compliance because they are more interested to treating your sore back or some other physical condition you may have.

Reduced Administrative Burden

The administrative burden of operating programs in compliance with the regulations can be substantial. Procuring services, training employees and program personnel, maintaining proper chains of custody, and collection equipment and facilities, maintaining the random pool and completing random selection and notification, quality assurance, and recordkeeping and reporting can each be time consuming activities. Taken together, they can be daunting to an employer who wants to operate a first-class safety program.

An accredited consortium can assume responsibility for any or all of these activities. Because the services are provided for all employers as a whole, the costs to an individual employer are substantially less than if each employer were to provide these services on his own.

Beyond cost savings and expertise, is practicality. Particularly for small employers, maintaining of a random pool and selecting drivers for random testing can be difficult.

The accredited consortium approach to managing random selection has another advantage. Some drivers fear that, if an employer wished to target the driver, the employer could manipulate the random process to ensure that the driver was selected repeatedly or at specific times. Delegation of the random selection process to an accredited consortium can minimize employer control and driver concerns.

An employer that employs only himself/herself as a driver MUST join a random pool. Therefore, it is to their advantage to join an accredited consortium with a random pool. The FMCSA believes these individuals by definition, cannot select themselves for a random test. The test therefore cannot be unannounced and the intent of the random testing provisions of the law and regulations cannot be met by individuals who are not members of a random pool consisting of two or more drivers.

Using an accredited consortium may distance employers from the actual operation of the testing program; however, employers still remain responsible for program actions. Therefore, employers should exercise due diligence in selecting a consortium, making sure that its accreditation goes a long way.

Employers should consult the Drug & Alcohol Testing Industry Association (DATIA) for the accredited consortium that fits their needs (i.e. some consortiums specialize in only certain modes such as NorthAmerican Transportation Association, which specializes in FMCSA).