Introduction to Substance Abuse Professionals (SAPs) and How They are Important to Your Company

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5 September 2023

Introduction to Substance Abuse Professionals (SAPs) and How They are Important to Your Company

Does your company contract with Substance Abuse Professionals? As employers integrate drug and alcohol testing into the workplace, there will be an eventual need for employees to be evaluated for possible abuse or addiction. Whether complying with U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) regulations or offering an Employee Assistance Program (EAP), companies look for a way to provide confidential and impartial services to workers requiring help with a drug or alcohol problem. (Learn more in "DOT vs. Non DOT Testing: What's the Difference?")

Goal of a Substance Abuse Professional (SAP)

A Substance Abuse Professional (SAP) is an important component of a drug-free workplace program and DOT regulations. The SAP is a trained person who can independently assess employees who fail a mandatory or random drug screen, or who violate a DOT or company policy. For the DOT, or companies with DOT contracts, the SAP serves as a gatekeeper for the process, including return-to-work. For companies with an EAP benefit (working with mental health and other issues), employees and their family members may also consult a SAP with personal concerns. (Learn more in "Supporting Employee Mental Health in the Workplace".)

The SAP’s role is to perform an unbiased face-to-face evaluation of an individual. The DOT states, “The SAP is advocate for neither the employer nor the employee.” The goal is to protect citizens and co-workers in transportation and safety-sensitive situations. (Learn more in "Prescription Opioids and Safety Sensitive Work".) To emphasize the magnitude of the task, the DOT writes to all SAPs, “As a Substance Abuse Professional, you represent the major decision point (and in some cases the only decision point) an employer may have in choosing whether or not to place an employee behind the steering wheel of a school bus, in the cockpit of a plane, at the helm of an oil tanker, at the throttle of a train, in the engineer compartment of a subway car, or at the emergency control valves of a natural gas pipeline. Your responsibility to the public is enormous!” (Learn more in "8 Things Employers Should Know About DOT Drug and Alcohol Testing".)

Substance Abuse Professional (SAP) Qualifications and Training

Because of the impact of an evaluation, the SAP is highly trained. Qualifications include obtaining credentials, acquiring specific knowledge about diagnosis and treatment, and going through a recognized training program. Course content includes information on the nine required content areas as designated in DOT Section 281(c) of Part 40. The SAP must pass a national examination and then maintain credentials with continuing education credits every three years.

To apply to be a Substance Abuse Professional, an individual must already have one of the following licenses or certifications:

  • Physician (Doctor of Medicine or Osteopathy)
  • Psychologist
  • Social Worker
  • Employee Assistance Professional
  • Marriage and Family Therapist
  • Drug and Alcohol Counselor with national certification from National Association of Alcoholism and Drug Abuse Counselors Certification Commission (NAADAC); or by the International Certification Reciprocity Consortium/Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse (ICRC); or by the National Board for Certified Counselors, Inc. and Affiliates/Master Addictions Counselor (NBCC). State-level certifications do not meet DOT standards.

What a Substance Abuse Professional (SAP) Does

The DOT first published Alcohol and Drug Testing Rules for safety-sensitive transportation workers in 1994. In August 2009, it published a revised and updated document, “The Substance Abuse Professional Guidelines,” with clear information regarding evaluation, referral, follow-up, and reporting procedures. There are also specific guidelines for each transportation area of the DOT. (Learn more in "What drugs are part of a non-DOT 5 panel drug test?")

An evaluation is composed of two parts: the screening and the assessment. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) defines them as:

  • Screening: A brief review to determine if a problem is present and to estimate its severity.
  • Assessment: Defining the problem for an individual and assigning a diagnosis.

The screening process is a quick look to see if the situation calls for further examination. It can be done using one of several tools, either in-person or online. Questionnaires and inventories provide the SAP with enough information to say yes or no to the need for more in-depth investigation.

The assessment process is designed to accurately diagnose a condition and to initiate treatment that will help the individual recover and return to work as a safe and productive employee. The procedure is thorough, using more diagnostic tools as well as interviews with the individual and sometimes family or friends. An evaluation takes about 60-90 minutes. It is not meant to be punitive or to cause embarrassment. Rather, its purpose is to be beneficial and protect the employee, the employer, and the public.

The SAP will use all the results of the evaluation to do the following:

  • Determine if there is a drug or alcohol abuse or addiction
  • If substance abuse or addiction is verified, to assess its extent
  • Look for other co-existing factors, such as medical or mental health issues
  • Determine the effect on the person’s life (legal, financial, social, job, relationships)
  • Develop an individualized treatment plan
  • Be the referral source for an employee into an appropriate program
  • Make recommendations concerning education, follow-up testing, and aftercare
  • Be part of the return-to-work process, including mandated testing

The Substance Abuse Professional’s primary function is to partner with employees (or their family members) to assure that every measure is taken to maintain a secure work environment and safe public transportation system. By doing this, the SAP also helps individuals stop harmful behaviors and return to a healthy, happy life.