Preventing Workplace Drug Use

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If federal studies can be believed, roughly 1 in 10 of your workers is intoxicated by drugs or alcohol at this moment. The Substance Abuse Mental Health Services Administration says that percentage is even higher in industries such as trucking, construction, and manufacturing.

It’s not just illegal drugs, either. You may have seen the recent data from a task force led by Indiana Attorney General Greg Zoeller that abuse of prescription drugs affects 80 percent of Hoosier companies. About 40 percent said that they had workers who had lost time because of prescription drug abuse -- and two-thirds worried more about prescription drugs than street drugs (yet only 53 percent included prescription drug abuse in their HR policies).

What’s particularly concerning is that some of the most-abused drugs are synthetic opioids such as Oxycontin, Vicodin, and Percocet -- and addicted workers who can no longer find or afford these drugs often turn to a cheaper and more prevalent alternative known as heroin.

Employees who are drunk or stoned do more than impact productivity. They’re a danger to themselves, to the people they work with, and to everyone they encounter on the way to and from work. It’s no wonder that many employers include drug screening as part of the background check process and random and/or post-accident screening as a condition of continued employment.

However, drug screening is not a simple “do it or don’t” decision. There are a variety of complex factors, including legal considerations, and the complexity is increasing. For example, several states have legalized marijuana use, so what can you do if a job candidate fails a drug screen after legally consuming marijuana elsewhere?

The choices you make about drug screening and other background investigations should be based in carefully considered and well-documented policy that clearly explains your objectives. What exactly are you looking for, and how does it impact an employee’s ability to perform his or her job? How will you ensure that your process is legal and fair? Simply saying “we’re going to test” is inadequate.

Once you’ve decided to implement drug screening, you have to make another decision: which drugs will you test for? Testing laboratories offer a wide variety of options, from basic three-panel screens, to five- and ten-panel tests, each of which can identify more drugs. It’s an important consideration. That Indiana study reported that 87 percent of companies performed some drug testing, but only half included screening for opioid drugs.

You also have to decide on the type of test. Some screen urine, others use blood, and still others examine hair follicles. Each has its advantages and disadvantages. Take tests for marijuana use. Even if someone is a fairly regular user, if they don’t smoke any marijuana for a couple days before the screen, it probably won’t show up in their urine. Hair follicles can detect a presence for many weeks, but recent use doesn’t show up immediately. That means follicle testing is good for identifying habitual users, but may miss the recreational crowd.

Another key issue is whether pre-employment testing alone is enough. Looking at past activity is only part of the process. People change over time, and someone who didn’t have a substance abuse problem when you hired her five years ago may now be a regular drug user. That’s why many employers make random screens a key element of their process.

However, random screens are more complicated than you may realize. You can’t just identify employees that you want to screen. Most companies will work through a testing lab that will pool their employees with those of other companies and generate a truly random list.

Whether for pre-employment or random testing, screening programs typically involve a considerable amount of paperwork. The employer also needs to find collection sites that are convenient for workers. That’s especially important for companies whose workers may be performing tasks in rural areas, such as construction contractors. If the nearest lab is two hours away, testing an employee can result in a half-day of lost time. Fortunately, there are new “instant” kits on the market that are easy to use.

No matter what your goals, remember that the foundation of effective screening and background investigation programs is sound policy. If you’re not comfortable with your knowledge level, find a vendor who can act as your partner in the process. Doing so will ensure that you meet your goals without making mistakes.

Mike McCarty is CEO of Danville-based Safe Hiring Solutions