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Drug Testing

You’ve identified many behaviors in an employee or coworker that lead you believe that the person has a substance abuse problem. Now what? Whether the job is on a construction site or in a baker, it is important to remember that workplace substance abuse should never be taken lightly; your safety is at risk as well as the other employees and the abuser.

Discuss your suspicions with your supervisor, and have the supervisor confront the employee about the troubling behavior. Depending on the circumstances, it may be appropriate for the employer to perform drug testing.

But drug testing is a sensitive subject. It is subject to local labor agreements and regulations. In some occupations or jobs drug testing is mandatory, especially if an accident has occurred. Bottom line: Whether drug testing is required or agreed upon as part of your contract, the behavior needs to be addressed. And, if testing is part of the program, there are many questions about its implementation.

Many questions come to mind when discussing a drug testing program. Some of the more common are included here.

Why do employers drug test?

Safety is the simplest answer. Alcohol and drug abuse can create huge safety and health hazards on the job. This type of activity decreases an employee’s ability to think and reason clearly as well as increases reaction time. These may be some other reasons for drug testing:

• To deter employees from drug and alcohol abuse.

• To prevent hiring those who use drugs.

• To provide management with an early identification of those with alcohol and/or drug problems.

• To provide a safe workplace for all employees.

• To comply with the Federal Drug-Free Workplace Act.

How is drug testing conducted?

There are standardized procedures that were established by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, which is part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services that must be followed by federal agencies. Private employers have a bit more flexibility in using drug testing to best fit the needs of their company. Although private employers don’t have to follow these guidelines, many opt to use them so that they will be on solid legal footing, as many court decisions have supported following these guidelines.

SAMHSA’s guidelines require that a medical review officer evaluate tests. The most common method employers use is urinalysis, which can be performed at the workplace or a doctor’s office. The sample is provided by an employee (or job applicant), and precautions are usually taken to prevent the sample from being altered. Precautions can include putting blue dye in the toilet, turning off the water supply as well as having the individual accompanied while the sample is given. Once obtained, the sample is sent to a certified lab for testing, where the accuracy is very high.

Who is allowed access to the results?

The results of a drug test may be considered personal health information, so there may be restrictions on how and even if this information can be shared. So that employers can receive and review the results, drug-tested employees are typically asked to sign a release at the time of the test.

When are drug tests conducted?

There are many different times when a drug test may occur. Some of the more common are these:

Pre-Employment. This type of testing is conducted to try to prevent hiring individuals who use illegal drugs. Applicants agree to the testing and understand that they will not be hired if they test positive.

Reasonable Suspicion. Sometimes referred to as “probable-cause” or “for-cause” testing, it is done when a supervisor documents obvious signs of drug or alcohol use.

Post-Accident. Testing following an accident can help determine whether drugs and/or alcohol were a factor in causing the accident.

Random. In this scenario, drug testing is unannounced and unpredictable. Employees are chosen at random, many times by a computer. This allows all employees to have an equal chance of being chosen. Since it is unannounced, it is seen as a deterrent.

Periodic. These are scheduled in advance, and all employees are included. Many employers include drug testing in their annual physicals for their employees.

What are the different types of drug tests?

Many different bodily specimens can be tested to detect evidence of recent drug use. The more common include the following:

Urine. Most drugs are processed and removed from the body in urine, which makes it helpful when drug testing. It detects and measures drug use within the previous few days.

Breath. This is the most common test for finding out how much alcohol is currently in the blood, the Blood Alcohol Concentration. The BAC can be closely matched to impairment at the time of the test.

What drugs do these tests detect?

The typical test following the SAMHSA guidelines can only check for the presence of five illicit drugs: amphetamines (meth, speed, crank, ecstasy), THC (marijuana, hash), cocaine (coke, crack), opiates (heroin, opium, codeine, morphine), and phencyclidine (PCP, angel dust).

There are test available to detect virtually every drug available, depending what an employer chooses to test for. These extended panels are used by private employers.

It is important to remember that drug testing isn’t your fault. The employee or applicant chose to show up having used illicit drugs, and you are simply trying to keep all employees safe. Perhaps these tests may cause an employee with a substance abuse problem to take ownership of the problem and work to remove it from their lives.

Diane Kelly is a safety specialist with INTEC, Waverly, Pa.

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