Workforce Drug Testing Positivity Climbed to Highest Rate in 16 Years

Workforce Drug Testing Positivity Climbed to Highest Rate in 16 Years

Aug. 31, 2020
Marijuana positivity climbed by double digits across nearly all employee testing categories, while opiate and heroin positivity declined.

The rate of workforce drug positivity hit a sixteen-year high in 2019, according to an analysis released on August 25 by Quest Diagnostics.

Positivity rates in the combined U.S. workforce increased in urine drug tests, climbing to the highest level since 2003 (4.5%) and more than 28% higher than the thirty-year low of 3.5% recorded between 2010 and 2012. 

In addition to overall increases in workforce drug positives, specific regions of the United States, particularly the Midwest, experienced dramatic increases in positivity for cocaine and methamphetamine as well as marijuana. 

The Quest Diagnostics findings generally align with other research. Drug deaths in the U.S. rose 5% in 2019, driven largely by methamphetamine, cocaine, and fentanyl, following a decline in 2018. During the first few months of 2020, drug deaths increased by about 13% compared with last year, attributable partly to social isolation and other disruptions caused by COVID-19. 

“There is no question that before COVID-19, rates of workplace drug positivity were trending in the wrong direction, based on our Quest Diagnostics data, The enormous strain caused by COVID-19 may prove to be an accelerant on this disturbing trend,” said Dr. Barry Sample, senior director of science and technology, Quest Diagnostics. “Organizations will need to consider the impact of COVID-19 not only on workplace safety but also as a health concern for their employees for some time to come.”

Workforce positivity increases significantly in multiple industries

The Quest Diagnostics Drug Testing Index Industry Insights of general U.S. workforce positivity rates, based on more than 18 million urine drug test results (between 2015 and 2019), show year-over-year increases in overall workplace drug positivity in 15 of the 17 sectors reported.

The Retail Trade industry had the highest overall positivity rate (4.7% in 2015, 5.1% in 2016, 5.3% in 2017, 5.4% in 2018 and 5.5% in 2019) across all five years of the analysis. 

The Other Services (not including Public Administration) category, which includes services not listed in the other categories such as grantmaking, advocacy, and providing personal services, also had a 5.5% positivity rate in 2019. 

The Accommodations and Food Service category had the highest workforce positivity for marijuana, at 4.8%, a relative increase of 65 percent over five years (2.9% in 2015 versus 4.8% in 2019).  

Marijuana most commonly detected drug in U.S. workforce

Marijuana continues to top the list of the most commonly detected illicit substances across all workforce categories (general U.S. workforce; federally mandated, safety-sensitive workforce; and combined U.S. workforce, which includes the prior two populations) and specimen types (urine, oral fluid, and hair). 

In the general U.S. workforce, marijuana positivity increased by nearly 11% in urine testing (2.8% in 2018 versus 3.1% in 2019) and 29% since 2015 (2.4%).

In the Midwest, marijuana positivity outpaced national increases in positivity in 2018 and 2019. Marijuana positivity increased in the Midwest by nearly 14% (2.9% in 2018 versus 3.3% in 2019).

The West region also outpaced national positivity and saw double-digit increases, as compared to the previous year, in 2017 through 2019. Marijuana positivity increased in the West by 24% (3.3% in 2018 versus 4.1% in 2019) and 78% since 2015 (2.3%).

Positivity rates for methamphetamine surged in the Midwest 

Over the last five years, methamphetamine positivity in the general U.S. workforce testing increased nearly 12% (0.17% in 2015 versus 0.19% in 2019).

--The Midwest region experienced year-over-year increases, driven primarily by double-digit increases in the East North Central region during this period. Over the past five years, methamphetamine positivity in the Midwest increased by nearly 78% (0.09% in 2015 versus 0.16% in 2019). Illinois (0.03% in 2015 versus 0.10% in 2019), Indiana (0.14% in 2015 versus 0.29% in 2019), Michigan (0.014% in 2015 versus 0.05 in 2019), and Ohio (0.04% in 2015 versus 0.11% in 2019) increased at least two-fold; while Wisconsin (0.05% in 2015 versus 0.09% in 2019) nearly doubled. 

Between 2019 and 2018. methamphetamine positivity inched up nearly 6 % (0.18% in 2018 versus 0.19% in 2019) in general U.S. workforce tests and fell 6.3 percent (0.15% in 2018 versus 0.16% in 2019) in federally-mandated, safety-sensitive testing. Methamphetamine positivity changed little in the general U.S. workforce (up 12%) and was flat in federally-mandated, safety-sensitive testing over five years. 

The increased positivity rates for methamphetamine in urine test results were bolstered by similar patterns in other specimen types. Oral fluid methamphetamine positivity, which also assesses recent use, was up 4.3% since 2018 and up 69% since 2015; while methamphetamine positivity from hair tests, which gauges a pattern of drug use over time, was up 20% since 2018 and 60% since 2015.

Cocaine positivity increased in the Midwest and West

Cocaine positivity in the general U.S. workforce testing increased in the Midwest and West regions over the past five years. Cocaine positivity in the Midwest increased by 4% (0.20% in 2015 versus 0.28% in 2019) and in the West by 53% (0.15% in 2015 versus 0.23% in 2019). The Midwest was 20% less than the national rate in 2015 but 3.7% above the national rate in 2019, suggesting a surge in positivity in the region last year. 

In the West, where cocaine positivity has been historically far lower, the cocaine positivity rate rose from 40% below the national rate in 2015 to 14.8% below in 2019. These increases in the West were primarily driven by increasing positivity in Colorado (0.19% in 2015 versus 0.30% in 2019), Nevada (0.13% in 2015 versus 0.22% in 2019), and Oregon (0.09% in 2015 versus 0.13% in 2019). 

Opiate positivity declines throughout United States 

In the general U.S. workforce, positivity for opiates in urine drug testing continues to decline across all opiate categories. Urine drug test positivity for opiates (primarily codeine and/or morphine) in the general U.S. workforce declined more than 19% (0.31% in 2018 versus 0.25% in 2019) and 49% over five years (0.49% in 2015 versus 0.25% in 2019).

Among the more specific tests for other prescription opiates, the positivity for the semi-synthetic opiates (hydrocodone and/or hydromorphone) dropped 26% over the past year (0.50% in 2018 versus 0.37% in 2019) and more than 45% over five years (0.68% in 2015 versus 0.37% in 2019).

Similarly, positivity for oxycodones (oxycodone and/or oxymorphone) declined 21% (0.43% in 2018 versus 0.34% in 2019) over the past year and nearly 55% over five years (0.75% in 2015 versus 0.34% in 2019).

About the Author

EHS Today Staff

EHS Today's editorial staff includes:

Dave Blanchard, Editor-in-Chief: During his career Dave has led the editorial management of many of Endeavor Business Media's best-known brands, including IndustryWeekEHS Today, Material Handling & LogisticsLogistics Today, Supply Chain Technology News, and Business Finance. In addition, he serves as senior content director of the annual Safety Leadership Conference. With over 30 years of B2B media experience, Dave literally wrote the book on supply chain management, Supply Chain Management Best Practices (John Wiley & Sons, 2021), which has been translated into several languages and is currently in its third edition. He is a frequent speaker and moderator at major trade shows and conferences, and has won numerous awards for writing and editing. He is a voting member of the jury of the Logistics Hall of Fame, and is a graduate of Northern Illinois University.

Adrienne Selko, Senior Editor: In addition to her roles with EHS Today and the Safety Leadership Conference, Adrienne is also a senior editor at IndustryWeek and has written about many topics, with her current focus on workforce development strategies. She is also a senior editor at Material Handling & Logistics. Previously she was in corporate communications at a medical manufacturing company as well as a large regional bank. She is the author of Do I Have to Wear Garlic Around My Neck?, which made the Cleveland Plain Dealer's best sellers list.

Nicole Stempak, Managing Editor:  Nicole Stempak is managing editor of EHS Today and conference content manager of the Safety Leadership Conference.

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