Impairment Tests as a Drug-Screen Alternative

Feb. 11, 2010
Impairment testing shows promise as a more effective measure to determine on-the-job alertness.

Henry Bowles hopes concerns about the reliability, cost and privacy of drug testing fuels a new way of thinking about workplace substance-abuse screening. Bowles is president and CEO of a company that has developed "alertness" tests for safety-sensitive occupations.

The tests are designed to measure basic cognitive functions that determine whether an employee is too impaired or fatigued to work. Impairment tests show potential to be more accurate safety tools than drug tests because they measure the worker's current state, says Lewis Maltby, president of the National Workrights Institute.

"You can put someone in front of the device and in two minutes determine if they can drive a truck safely," he says.

So far, Bowles says the company's only customers have been pilot projects funded by the government. The company charges a monthly rate of $5 to $10 per employee for the test, Bowles says. The exam comprises a series of shapes presented on a checkerboard background. Test takers are asked to determine whether all the shapes are the same or different. "It challenges hand-eye coordination, decision-making and a number of other brain functions as indicators of possible impairment," Bowles says.

Other impairment tests on the market include ocular systems that monitors a subject's eyes to determine whether the person is impaired. Some manufacturers have reported success with impairment testing, according to a report authored by Maltby. An Alcoa facility in Rockdale, Texas, which closed in 2008, reported a decline in accidents while using an ocular impairment testing system as a pre-shift safety screen, according to Maltby's study.

West Bridgewater, Mass., laminate composites supplier Shawmut Corp. had used an agility test for approximately nine years before ending the program in 2004 because the test manufacturer went out of business, a company representative said. The test involved using a hand device on a computer keyboard to position a shape into the center of a block, said the representative.

The test successfully identified employees who were unable to work for a variety of reasons, including fatigue and medications. But the plant workers were less than enthusiastic about the test because they couldn't go to work until they passed.

"For the most part after a significant amount of training it became tolerated," said a company manager. "It wasn't going away so employees gave up bickering. I imagine it [the reaction] wouldn't have been much different if we implemented random drug testing, but the company wasn't in favor of random drug testing."

Shawmut didn't report any significant reductions in injuries, and the company discontinued the program when it could no longer receive network support from the defunct testing manufacturer. The company eventually implemented pre-employment drug screens because most other manufacturers in the region had drug-testing procedures in place, according to the company official.

With few impairment-testing manufacturers on the market, even fewer manufacturers appear to be utilizing them. One reason the tests might not be catching on is the perception that urine testing is enough, says Bowles. Other employers might be afraid of what they'll discover.

"A lot of people say or imply they don't want to know," Bowles says. "In other words, if their workers are very tired they don't want to know about it."

That's because some employers worry about how to handle an employee who doesn't pass the test and potential legal implications surrounding any actions taken. But in most cases an employer wouldn't fire a worker for failing the impairment test one time because it could be caused by any number of things, including illness or emotional distress, Maltby says.

If it happens on a repeated bases, the employee could be fired for not being able to perform the job.

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