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When can maritime workers be tested for alcohol?

Drunken sailors appear frequently in popular culture, singing shanties from the deck while seeking buried treasure. However, professional maritime workers know that alcohol use can have serious consequences at sea. In recent years, the maritime industry has put alcohol testing procedures in place to make the stereotype a thing of the past. Maritime workers should expect testing to occur in a few different circumstances.

Reasonable Cause

For commercial fishermen, ferry workers, deckhands, cruise ship workers and maritime workers in general, drinking alcohol is prohibited while on duty, as well as four hours beforehand. If you appear to be under the influence, the captain or other senior officer can test you for alcohol based on any of the following:

  • General behavior
  • Mood
  • Speech patterns
  • Movement
  • Appearance
  • Other observable factors

Most ships have on-board alcohol testing meters, which make these checks fast and routine.

Serious Maritime Incidents

The U.S. Coast Guard requires that maritime workers undergo drug and alcohol testing if they’ve been involved in a serious maritime incident. According to the USCG, these are incidents that involve one or more of the following:

  • An oil discharge of 10,000 gallons or more
  • A discharge of another hazardous substance in reportable amounts
  • A casualty or serious injury (including to passengers)
  • Property damage exceeding $100,000
  • Loss of a ship

If any of this occurs, an employer or other enforcement officer will generally test a maritime worker for alcohol within hours.

Employer-Specific Rules

The maritime industry is governed by complex bodies of law, and the rules regarding your specific job may change relatively frequently, depending on where you are. To simplify the situation — and to try to minimize their own liability — many maritime employers have specific drug and alcohol policies in place, which are often more stringent than what is required by state or federal laws. These policies may be different for different employers, and it’s up to the worker to comply with the rules of their vessel.

For instance, some vessels permit a maximum blood alcohol level of 0.08 percent while working, as recommended by the International Maritime Organization. Others have a maximum level of 0.04 percent, even during off-hours. Many companies simply ban drinking altogether, and some will subject their crew to random screenings as well, ensuring that there’s no breach in policy.

Working at sea can be difficult, with long hours and longer days away from home. However, the costs of alcohol use are too high—a single person’s actions can put the entire crew in jeopardy. By sticking to the rules of your vessel and using common sense, you’ll help guarantee a reasonably safe work environment for everyone.

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