What Every Employer Should Know about Drug Testing in the Workplace

Aug. 25, 2004
American business has a drug problem. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, more than 8 million Americans use some type of illegal substance. As many as 73 percent of all illicit drug users in this country are employed.

A Gallup Survey of employees conducted by the Institute for a Drug-Free Workplace found that 37 percent of all respondents said that workplace drug use problems had increased in the last 5 years. A majority of respondents supported drug-screening tests. In general, it appears that respondents placed the greatest emphasis on drug testing for those employed in occupations where one person has direct responsibility for many.

As part of the federal government's effort to address the issue of substance abuse in the workplace, the Drug-Free Workplace Act of 1988 was enacted as part of the omnibus drug legislation. This Act - in effect since March 18, 1989 - requires contractors and grantees of federal agencies to agree to provide drug-free workplaces as a precondition of receiving a contract or grant from a Federal agency.

According to Edward Poole, president and COO of OHS Health and Safety Services Inc., Costa Mesa, Calif., several government and private industry studies concluded that each drug user in the workplace "can cost an employer an average of $11,000-$13,000 annually." That adds up to a cost to American businesses of billions in healthcare costs, lost production time, injuries and damage to equipment and facilities. And chances are good, says Poole, that if your employer does not have a drug-free workplace policy and program, then he or she has at least one drug user on the payroll.

It Can't Happen Here

Despite studies and surveys indicating that a significant number of substance abusers hold jobs and work while under the influence, Poole points out that many employers have an "it can't happen here" attitude about substance abuse in the workplace.

"Once they get in there and implement a policy and start testing employees, they're usually very surprised by the results," he says.

Poole tells the story of one client who operated a small, local delivery service. When a representative from OHS Health and Safety Services visited the business owner, he was told repeatedly that there was no reason to conduct drug testing in that workplace. After all, the company had only 63 employees. After a couple of years of rebuffing them, the delivery service owner called OHS.

"He said, 'We're having some problems. There's something going on that's kind of strange. We want to start a drug-free workplace program,'" Poole recalls. (See sidebar on page XX for steps to create a drug-free workplace program.)

OHS helped him write up a company policy about drugs and drug use in the workplace. They posted signs stating it was a drug-free workplace, and passed out pamphlets to employees.

Forty-five days later, OHS showed up unannounced and did what's called a "sweep." He was going to test every employee in the workplace.

Nine people immediately walked off the job. Says Poole, "One or two probably had deeply rooted beliefs in the right to privacy and all that crap, but it is probably safe to say that most of those nine employees would have tested positive."

Out of the 54 who took the drug test, 19 tested positive for marijuana and several tested positive for cocaine as well. "The employer was shocked," says Poole, "shocked. Most employers have no clue how many employees are working under the influence."

Writing a Policy

The first step toward eliminating workplace drug and alcohol use is the establishment of a a drug-free workplace policy. The U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) offers a Drug-Free Workplace Advisor at www.dol.gov/elaws/drugfree.htm that offers guidance on how to develop a drug- and alcohol-free workplace. According to DOL, the policy should lay the groundwork for your program and should answer several questions, including:

  1. 1. What is the purpose/goal of your program?
  2. 2. Who will be covered by your policy?
  3. 3. When will your policy apply?
  4. 4. What behavior will be prohibited?
  5. 5. Will employees be required to notify you of drug-related convictions?
  6. 6. Will your policy include searches?
  7. 7. Will your program include drug testing?
  8. 8. What will the consequences be if your policy is violated?
  9. 9. Will there be return-to-work agreements?
  10. 10. What type of assistance will be available?

The policy "spells out, in black and white, the employer's policy about drugs in the workplace. It should be explicit about what will not be tolerated," says Poole.

Once the policy is established and communicated to employees through workplace signage, take-home materials and workplace briefings, employers might want to take the next step and begin drug-testing current employees and new hires. (Poole cautions employers to determine the legality of drug testing in their state before instituting a program.)

Types of Testing

There are several types of drug-testing procedures available, including blood, urine and hair specimen testing. Poole says that blood tests are usually only used in extreme cases, such as the employee being unconscious as the result of a workplace accident and under the care of emergency room physicians or, in certain cases, as demanded by a court order. Hair specimen testing costs about $115-$150 per test nationally, Poole estimates. "Hair can indicate drug-use as far back as 90 days," says Poole. "Most drugs are detectable in urine for only 1-4 days."

Of the approximately 55 million drug tests performed in the United States each year, 90 percent are urine tests. Poole estimates the cost of urine specimen drug testing at approximately $44 per employee.

The rumors that it is relatively easy to "cheat" a drug test are highly exaggerated, says Poole. Most of those products must be ingested repeatedly for hours before the test is administered. So, even if they do work, such products would only be useful for scheduled drug tests, which is something most employers offer only to new hires.

Poole suggests that employers make offers to new employees contingent upon them passing a drug test. He also says that testing employees following accidents and near-misses is advisable, as is testing any employee you suspect to be under the influence. Again, he cautions, check with state employment and privacy laws to ensure the legality of your testing program. As for random tests, the industry standard is to always test 50 percent of the total number of employees each year.

Testing Results

Poole uses the following example to show the cost/benefit analysis of drug testing: A company with 100 employees with an annual turnover rate of 30 percent has a cost per drug test of $44. If the company tests all 30 new hires and conducts random drug tests of 50 percent of its employees, then it is conducting 80 tests per year. Add in another 20 drug tests annually, ordered as "post-accident" or due to "reasonable suspicion," for a total of 100 drug tests per year.

"At $44 per test, that means the company is investing $4,400 per year in what would be - I assure you - a very highly effective drug-free workplace program," says Poole.

He notes that in the first 3-4 months of newly instituted random drug testing of their employees, every company can expect drug "positive" rates of anywhere from 5 percent to 22 percent. Construction companies and food service tend to rank on the high end of the positive scale, he adds. Retail and office workers tend to have fewer positive drug tests.

"By the end of the first full year at the latest the rate of drug positives coming back on the lab reports will drop by 50 percent to 80 percent," says Poole. "Drug positive rates of 26 percent will drop to as little as 5 percent and positive rates of 5 percent will drop to as low as 1 percent."

Soon, the company that once had 100 employees that included anywhere from five or six to 24 workers who used drugs in the workplace and perhaps even dealt drugs in the workplace becomes a drug-free workplace. Company production increases and quality of products and services improve. Sick days are fewer; injuries decrease; the number of workers' compensation claims get reduced; insurance and workers' compensation premiums stabilize; and equipment and supplies stop being damaged or disappearing as frequently.

"Let's look a bit more closely at the average $4,400 annual outlay that a company of 100 likely needs to invest to reach an effective, year-around drug testing program. Based on 365 days, the hard cost of drug testing for the company dilutes to only $12.05 per day. With 100 employees, that's about 12 cents per day per employee, or less than one-half the cost today of making a local call from a corner payphone," says Poole. "Wouldn't you say that's a sound investment?"

Sidebar: Steps to a Successful Drug-Free Workplace Program

According to Edward Poole, president and COO of OHS Health & Safety Services Inc., there are 14 steps to a successful drug-free workplace program.

  1. 1. Prepare a written "drug-free workplace" policy for your legal protection and provide a copy for all employees. Have the acknowledgment of their review and understanding of it signed and dated by them and place it in their personnel file. According to Poole, 14 states have laws requiring a written drug testing policy; two states require state-approval of the policy before implementing a drug testing program. Such a policy should have the following elements: statement of purpose; coverage and implementation; scope of testing; definitions of terms used; alcohol and drug-free workplace program; alcohol policy; legal drugs defined; illegal drugs defined; education and training required for supervisors and employees; substances to be screened; procedure for the collection of specimens; initial screening and test confirmation process; test results/reporting procedure/employee's right to retest; action level for "positive" test results; additional consequences for violation of the company's drug and alcohol policy; reservation of rights; identification of substance abusers; pre-employment, random, reasonable suspicion, post-accident and return-to-duty testing procedures; consequences of a refusal to submit to testing; testing after rehire; disciplinary action; employee responsibilities under the policy and a contact person.
  2. 2. Post "We Are a Drug-Free Workplace" or similar signs in the parking gate entrance, the entrance to your building and the lobby, the coffee room and above the employee time clock. Post similar signs where job applicants can see them. (The law in two states actually requires conspicuous posting of this type.)
  3. 3. Circulate substance-abuse prevention education materials (e.g., pamphlets/videos) to all supervisors, managers and other employees once annually. A short reminder notice of your drug-free workplace company policy - and perhaps some drug-abuse facts - should be included inside pay envelopes at least once per calendar quarter.
  4. 4. Perform pre-employment drug testing on every new hire. Those testing "positive" for drugs should have their employment offer immediately rescinded no matter how qualified they might otherwise appear to be for the position and no matter how badly you need to fill the position. (The law in five states requires that any drug testing be performed post-hire only; law in one state permits pre-employment testing only in conjunction with a "comprehensive physical" exam; rescission of the job offer can be made following a confirmed positive for illicit drugs.)
  5. 5. Include a statement - "Employment subject to passing a drug test" or "We drug test all new hires" - in all help-wanted advertisements. (The law of one state requires that at least 10 days notice be given to an employee prior to his or her drug test.)
  6. 6. Randomly drug test (laws permitting) at least 50 percent of your employee base annually. Depending on the number of employees you have, perform random testing at least once monthly or every week.
  7. 7. Test an employee for "reasonable suspicion" whenever reasonable cause is justified by virtue of their display of any behavioral or physical indicators of drug-use, including a dramatic change in work performance.
  8. 8. Arrange substance-abuse awareness training for supervisors and managers at least once per year. Such training will help them to identify the indicators of drug-use among their crew and teach them the most effective methods of isolating and preventing a possible drug-use related workplace problem before it becomes a crisis for your company.
  9. 9. "Post-accident" drug test an employee whenever justified by serious injury, damaged/loss of property, or life. (At least 40 states will consider a denial of workers' compensation benefits when an accident is caused by your employee whose post-accident drug test is positive for illicit drugs. The majority of those 40 states also will consider a denial of unemployment benefits for that same reason.
  10. 10. Use only federal/state certified labs for the analysis of all specimens that are sent to a lab. Laws in five states and in one U.S. territory require that all elements of a company drug-testing program - including the choice of testing lab - strictly follow U.S. Department of Transportation guidelines.
  11. 11. Have all specimens that initially test "positive" (including those based upon results of on-site drug test devices or kits) re-tested by a certified lab.
  12. 12. Utilize the services of a medical review officer for all positive results.
  13. 13. Ensure that all test results of employees are kept strictly confidential! Inform only those with a "need to know" of final drug test results and maintain all results with strict security.
  14. 14. Impose all terms of your company's written testing policy strictly, fairly and equally with all employees.

Sidebar: Drug-Free Workplace Act of 1988

As part of the federal government's effort to address the issue of substance abuse in the workplace, the Drug-Free Workplace Act of 1988 was enacted as part of the omnibus drug legislation. This Act - in effect since March 18, 1989 - requires contractors and grantees of federal agencies to agree to provide drug-free workplaces as a precondition of receiving a contract or grant from a federal agency.

About the Author

Sandy Smith

Sandy Smith is the former content director of EHS Today, and is currently the EHSQ content & community lead at Intelex Technologies Inc. She has written about occupational safety and health and environmental issues since 1990.

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