Drug & Alcohol Testing: Here’s What Employers Must Know

Drug addiction costs various organizations in the United States to the tune of $81 billion annually. Businesses and other organizations incur these indirect costs due to loss of productivity, poor quality work output, thefts in the workplace, and absenteeism. When left unaddressed, workplace alcohol and drug abuse can also prove dangerous for employees, customers, and the public at large; impairment resulting from alcohol or substance abuse can result in injuries and fatalities in the workplace.

Contrary to what many people believe, all alcoholics or drug addicts are not criminals, homeless or unemployed. A vast majority (approximately 70%) of individuals with alcohol or drug problems in the United States continue to remain employed. One can easily deduce that hardly any organization or industry is free from the menace of workplace alcohol and drug abuse.

No wonder, an increasingly large number of private employers are now keen to understand how to detect, prevent, and treat workplace drug abuse. Even when alcohol and drug testing is not a legal requirement, employers are proactively implementing such programs in the United States.

A typical employment drug screening program is designed to detect the presence of alcohol, illegal drugs, and certain prescription drugs. It serves as a prevention and deterrent mechanism. In the United States, both federal and non-federal employers may conduct drug and alcohol tests.

Drug and Alcohol Testing Policy

When instituting a fresh drug and alcohol testing policy, employers need to ensure compliance with applicable federal and state laws.

Workplace drug testing laws vary across states, cities, and counties with regards to drug testing protocols, guidelines for handling specimens, testing methods, types of employers covered and whether applicant testing is authorized, restricted, or compulsory.

Organizations operating across wider geographies need to create policies that factor in the variations in such laws.

A drug and alcohol testing policy should be free of any ambiguities and clearly define how, when and which tests are to be performed.

Those responsible for drafting such a policy should avoid technical jargon so that workers can easily understand the contents. The policy should be made available to all employees.

When enforcing an alcohol and drug testing policy for the first time, it is a good idea to hold an orientation program for all workers.

Alcohol and Drug Testing Methods

Different alcohol and drug testing methods vary in their invasiveness, unit cost, and the authenticity of results. The most common testing methods use specimens such as hair follicles, urine, blood, mouth swab, sweat, and breath.

Hair follicle based tests can help ascertain whether a worker has used illicit substances in the last 90 days. The hair follicle test does not indicate current impairment due to substance abuse. It is only used to ascertain the past use of illegal substances.

Most of the private employers in the United States perform urine drug testing as its less invasive. Also, it is difficult for a worker to substitute the sample. Periodic (monthly, quarterly, half-yearly or yearly), random and pre-employment alcohol & drug testing programs generally rely upon this testing method.

Blood tests are the most invasive. These are generally recommended only if an additional confirmation is required during alcohol and drug screening. In some states, blood tests are prohibited for applicant or employee drug screening.

Breath alcohol test kits come handy when conducting suspicion-based testing in the workplace. Breathalyzer – a breath alcohol testing device can measure the amount of alcohol in the blood. This test only indicates the current use of alcohol.

In the case of federally regulated programs, only urine samples are tested. However, federal executive branch agencies can also include oral fluid specimens as part of their drug screening programs as long as they follow the guidelines issued by the Secretary of Health and Human Service.

Types of Drugs that Are Tested

Different drug testing methods can detect different drugs.

Besides alcohol, employers generally look for the following five categories of drugs:

  • Cocaine
  • Marijuana
  • Opiates
  • Amphetamines
  • Phencyclidine (PCP)

Additional categories of substances for which employers may drug test applicants or employers include Benzodiazepines, MDMA, barbiturates, Hydrocodone, and methadone.

It is up to the employer to decide which substances need to be detected. A 5-panel, 8-panel or 10-panel urine drug test, for instance, can help detect the presence of a different number of illegal drugs.

Pre-employment Tests

Pre-employment testing offers a wide range of benefits, including cost-savings to employers. When a company introduces pre-employment testing as part of its alcohol-and-drug-free workplace policy, it generally makes a ‘conditional’ offer of employment to candidates selected for a position. All job candidates undergo testing prior to being inducted into the workforce.

In most states, applicant testing is authorized only when employers inform applicants about it in advance.

In many states such as Minnesota, Ohio, and Oklahoma, employers are legally bound to make an offer of employment before a candidate can be drug tested.

Organizations that hire people for safety-sensitive positions in sectors such as security, transport, construction, mining, etc. may be required by the law to conduct applicant testing.

Pre-employment alcohol and drug testing can go a long way in preempting workplace accidents and non-violent employee misconduct.

People who abuse illicit substances are far less likely to apply for a vacant position when they know they would be tested for drug use. Alcoholics or drug addicts do not like being subjected to screening.

Workers who abuse drugs are likely to switch up to three or four employers in a year, thus leading to a high turnover cost. Therefore, even if the nature of a job does not necessarily demand workers to be perfectly sober at all times, applicant testing helps filter out candidates who may leave the company too soon.

Annual Physical Tests

Workplace alcohol and drug testing can be a part of the annual physical examination. However, it should not be a ‘surprise test.’

Employers should inform all employees well in advance that drug testing would be a part of the annual physical examination.

It is the constitutional right of a worker to know if he or she would be drug tested at a certain point in the future.

Employers should also allow workers to divulge information on whether they are taking any prescription or non-prescription medicines to avoid false positives.

Reasonable Suspicion Tests

Reasonable suspicion testing or for-cause testing is performed when an employer or supervisor has evidence or reasonable cause to suspect a worker of alcohol or drug abuse. Such tests not only help protect the safety and wellbeing of the worker and other coworkers but also deter workers from being under the influence of alcohol or drugs in the workplace.

Reasonable suspicion testing can go a long way in creating a safer working environment. Reasons for suspicion-based alcohol and drug testing in the workplace can include patterns of erratic behavior, inability to complete usual tasks, visible changes in appearance, physical signs, disorientation, etc.

Since reasonable suspicion testing is discretionary, it is absolutely necessary to train supervisors on how to identify the potential signs of substance abuse in the workplace. Employees too can be trained on how to spot co-workers with alcohol/drug problems.

A workplace alcohol and drug testing policy should be unambiguous on what constitutes reasonable suspicion, which circumstances, in particular, require testing, and who can authorize an alcohol or drug test.

Supervisors or managers responsible for enforcing the policy should apply it for every employee who exhibits observable signs of being under the influence of alcohol or drugs while on the job. Employers should leave no room for discrimination or preferential treatment.

Random Test

Employers can random-test workers once or multiple times in a calendar year. However, the testing schedule should be communicated to the employees well in advance.

In random alcohol and drug testing, each worker must be subject to an equal chance of being tested; most organizations either use a software program to generate a completely random set or hire a third-party service provider to conduct random tests.

Random drug testing is considered to be the most common component of a workplace alcohol and drug screening program as it offers a wide range of benefits at a lesser cost.

Companies that employ workers in safety-sensitive positions may be legally required to conduct random alcohol/drug tests from time to time.

While random drug testing cannot always identify workers who remain under the influence of alcohol or illicit substances, it can sure deter workplace drug abuse; many employees feel motivated to quit taking drugs or consuming alcohol before coming to work when they know they can get caught.

Thus, employers need not test all their employees and still manage to discourage workplace alcohol and substance abuse.

Incident-Based Test

It is a well-known fact that alcohol and drug use in the workplace increases the chances of occupational injuries and fatalities. Workers under the influence of alcohol or drugs suffer from disorientation, slow response times, and impaired judgment. Therefore, they are more likely to cause workplace accidents, especially when they are behind the wheel of a forklift, crane, truck, bus, etc. or when they operate heavy machinery.

Incident-based testing is conducted in the event of a workplace accident. It is used to ascertain whether workers involved in an accident were under the influence of alcohol or illegal drugs.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) does not prohibit post-accident drug testing. It advises employers to avoid administering blanket post-accident alcohol and drug tests when alcohol or drug use likely did not result in an injury. However, employers with workers in safety-sensitive roles may need to have the policy of ‘always’ performing post-accident alcohol and drug testing.

This type of testing helps companies reduce workers’ compensation claims. When workers with alcohol or drug problems know they stand to lose both workers’ compensation and employment, they are far more likely to be sober while on the job.

A blood test is generally carried out in order to establish the use of alcohol or drugs in the event of a workplace accident.

Test Results

Ensuring the accuracy of the results of drug tests is critical. Employers can hire an HHS-certified lab for specimen testing and engage a licensed physician – Medical Review Officer (MRO) – to interpret the results of an alcohol/drug test.

Test Positive Employees

Ideally, an alcohol and drug testing policy clearly defines the disciplinary action that would follow if an employee fails the test.

Depending upon organization culture, nature of business operations, potential risks of workplace alcohol/drug abuse, applicable federal/state laws, employers can terminate a test positive employee, offer a second-chance or sponsor an Employment Assistance Program (EAP).

In ‘second-chance’ states, employers are required to offer a second chance to test positive employees. After completing the EAP, test positive workers need to undergo tests once again.

Post-Treatment Testing

Some organizations may allow test-positive workers to return to work after completing rehabilitation programs. Such workers can be tested again to encourage them to remain drug-free.

Spreading Awareness is Important Too

Organization-wide alcohol and drug screening programs deliver the best results when they are supplemented by awareness campaigns focused on promoting a drug/alcohol-free workplace.

Employers can, for instance, hold monthly or quarterly seminars, workshops, lectures or orientation programs for employees to apprise them of the perils of workplace alcohol and drug abuse.

Workers also tend to see a company’s alcohol and drug screening program in a positive light once they understand how it benefits everyone.

Final Words

The main objective of alcohol and drug testing is to reduce associated costs and promote safe and healthy workplaces. This objective can be achieved when employers actively promote their alcohol and drug screening policies and have a majority of employees on board. Put simply, employers should be careful about the perception workers have about alcohol and drug testing programs.

The debate on ‘whether employee drug testing is ethical or not’ is not going to come to an end anytime soon. Some states have already banned applicant and employee testing for marijuana; others have imposed certain restrictions on how and when employers can perform employee drug testing.

Author Bio:

I am writing to introduce myself as Leon Reingold. I am the Editor-in-Chief at Drugtestsinbulk.com, a nationwide supplier of drug and alcohol testing products online.

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