Workplace Drug Testing: A Necessary Procedure?

March 3, 2007
Fifteen percent of manufacturing personnel, from CEOs to line workers, admitted to using illicit drugs in the past year.

According to the U.S. Department of Justice, drug abuse costs American industry over $140 billion annually. Employee drug abuse causes as much as 50% of all on-the-job accidents and up to 40% of employee theft. In addition, drug-abusing employees are absent ten times more frequently than non-users, and the turnover rate for drug-abusing employees is 30% higher than clean employees.

These rather shocking statistics do not include alcohol, but rather illegal drugs --such as heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine and ecstasy -- as well as the non-medical use of prescription drugs. With 10% of employed Americans between the ages of 18 and 49 admitting to illicit drug use, clearly drug abuse in the workforce is an issue that has remained persistent and present in American companies across the board.

While the construction sector generally has higher-than-average rates of on-the-job illicit drug use, manufacturing, surprisingly, also posts disturbingly high rates. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 15% of manufacturing personnel, from CEO to line worker, admitted to using illicit drugs in the past year. With such high incidence rates, more manufacturing firms are considering random oral fluid (saliva)-based drug testing as a new standard of detection, an exam that is more cost-efficient and timely than typical laboratory-based urinalysis.

A few years ago, a $40 billion international Fortune 500 company initiated a comprehensive drug-free workplace program. The core of the program included corporate-wide random oral fluid-based on-site drug testing, as well as employee education and assistance programs. At the start of the program, the corporation demonstrated a 7% "non-negative rate" for drug abuse. After the third year of successful random oral fluid-based drug testing, the company reduced the non-negative drug-use numbers to 0.7%. This new means of drug testing increased the bottom line by adding approximately $17 million of annual savings to the company. In addition, employees recognized personal benefits such as a safer and better work environment across the board.

In order to implement saliva-based drug testing successfully, companies must recognize the importance of random administration. Many industry experts assert that drug-testing methods that do not include random administration are simply not effective. Moreover, an effective testing program should apply to everyone in the company, with participants selected by computer software programs. Completed in this manner, all employees -- from the corporate boardroom on down -- have an equal chance of being selected, reducing the risk of singling out any one employee. Needless to say, the drug testing process should be as confidential as possible, with results shared only with parties that have a "need to know."

In addition, in order for fair administration in any drug test, whether it be random, pre-employment, post-accident, reasonable suspicion/for cause, or return-to-duty, drug testing must include observed specimen collection. With urine-based testing, which is usually outsourced to an off-site laboratory, observed testing causes many issues, including employee privacy infringement and occasion for adulteration or sample substitution.

Company management typically shies away from oral fluid testing owing to a simple lack of knowledge. Executives may favor urine-based testing because of the precedent set by the federal government. Despite its widespread adoption, urine-based drug testing is not nearly as efficient at addressing company drug problems or fulfilling a company's legal responsibility, under federal law, to provide a safe workplace for all employees (U.S. Department of Labor, OSHA.)

In addition, organized labor may pose obstacles to effective drug testing programs by opposing the practice in general, or insisting on the exclusive use of outdated, ineffective methods, such as urine-based testing. Despite rough patches, according to a 2005 Gallup Survey on Construction Risk Report, 71% of union members are in favor of drug testing.

Despite the obvious benefits of drug testing methods, only 10% of U.S. corporations have any sort of drug-free workplace program. . However, the relatively recent availability of oral fluid-based testing has shifted company approaches to drug testing. In addition, more often than not, the oral-fluid approach leads to deterrence, rather than punishment.

Furthermore, a recent Gallup poll shows that over 90% of employees are in favor of drug testing. Administered fairly, effectively, and randomly, oral-fluid drug testing, in combination with education and employee assistance programs, provides a solution to workplace drug abuse.

Peter Cholakis is the vice president of Avitar, Inc. which develops, manufactures and markets products in the oral fluid diagnostic market, disease and clinical testing market, and customized polyurethane applications used in the wound dressing industry.

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