Employer Testing Credited for Drop in Worker Drug Use

By Kathy Gurchiek Apr 18, 2007
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Marijuana and amphetamine drug use among U.S. workers and potential hires fell by 72 percent in 2006, according to the annual Drug Testing Index (DTI) published by Quest Diagnostics.

Drug testing positive result rates fell from 13.6 percent in 1988 to 3.8 percent in 2006.

That’s the lowest it has been since Quest Diagnostics began publishing its annual index in 1988, and drug testing by employers is being credited for the decline.

The number of people in the general workforce testing positive for amphetamines fell 12.5 percent. The number of people in the general workforce testing positive for methamphetamine—a type of amphetamine—also continued to decline, from 33 of every 10,000 people tested in 2004 to 18 of every 10,000 people tested in 2006, according to index findings.

The DTI summarizes results of more than 9 million urine workplace drug tests Quest Diagnostics performed during 2006.

John Walters, director of National Drug Control Policy, attributed the drop to the effectiveness of drug testing and the federal government’s efforts to eliminate domestic methamphetamine labs.

Barry Sample, director of science and technology for Quest Diagnostics’ Employer Solutions division, credited increased employer vigilance and the possibility that people who abuse drugs might avoid seeking employment at companies that conduct testing.

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ data from the 2005 National Survey on Drug Use and Health seems to back up the latter view. The agency notes that “workers reporting current illicit drug use were less likely than workers reporting no current illicit drug use to say they would work for an employer who tests employees for drug use at hiring, randomly, based upon reasonable suspicion, or following a work-related accident.”

An Indiana company left no doubt about its lack of tolerance for drug use among its employees in 2005 when it fired one-fourth of its 120 workers because they tested positive for methamphetamine, marijuana, cocaine or other drugs during a drug test, HR News reported April 28, 2005.

Some HR professionals and testing experts, though, have claimed that employers are turning their backs on drug testing, partly because in some industries there is no demonstrable return on the cost of the testing or because employers are lowering their standards in order to fill jobs, HR News reported April 17, 2006.

And there’s the question of whether the index findings reflect, in part, the fact that people are getting better at cheating on drug tests. A 2005 congressional hearing focused on a “thriving black market of dilutants, adulterants and other dodges,” as HR News reported at the time.

Among employers who do administer drug tests, it’s typically part of the pre-employment testing (83.5 percent), or after hiring when there is reasonable suspicion that there is a problem (73.3 percent), according to a March 14-20, 2006, online survey that the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) conducted with 454 SHRM members.

In addition, testing occurs after employees have been involved in a workplace accident (58.1 percent), at random (39.4 percent), following a positive test result (14.3 percent), or to establish a baseline at implementation of a program (1 percent), the SHRM survey found

Other reasons given for workplace drug tests, SHRM respondents said, was in accordance with a client’s requirement, as a requirement for a commercial driver’s license, for a work project and to monitor an employee.

“Until they come clean with us and say they have a dependency problem and are seeking help, we then ask for updates on their classes and reports” from Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous, commented one unidentified respondent, who added: “We have an employee at the moment that has agreed to random drug tests,” the HR person added. “I set it up.”

Helping Employers

Wyoming is taking steps to encourage employers to administer drug tests. In March 2007, Gov. Dave Freudenthal approved a Department of Employment program that gives businesses in that state a 5 percent discount on their workers’ compensation insurance premiums by testing their workers for drug and alcohol use.

“Regrettably, when it comes to workplace substance abuse, small businesses are at a disadvantage,” Department Director Cindy Pomeroy said in a press release. “These employers are less likely to have programs in place to combat the problem, yet they are more likely to be the employer of choice for illicit drug users,” she added, citing national statistics that show 44 percent of illicit drug users work for small establishments employing between one and 24 employees.

More than 1,000 Wyoming employers have joined the state’s program, which requires pre-employment, random, reasonable suspicion and post-injury drug and alcohol testing, according to the news report.

And in Pennsylvania, Gov. Edward Rendell announced $806,000 will be awarded to Drug Free Pennsylvania for a public awareness campaign to educate employers about the dangers of workplace substance abuse, HR News reported April 10, 2007.

Nearly half of Pennsylvania’s small employers have no drug-free workplace policies, so the campaign will focus on small businesses. Assistance will include help in writing drug-free workplace policies, drug and alcohol testing, and training for employees and managers.

The American Council for Drug Education offers the following tips on its web site for employers wanting to create a drug-free workplace:

  • Create a written policy that is supported by top management, understood by all employees, enforced consistently, and clear about what is expected of employees and the consequences of violations.
  • Implement a substance abuse prevention program with an employee drug education component that focuses not only on the dangers of drug and alcohol use but also on the availability of counseling and treatment.
  • Train managers, front-line supervisors, HR, medical staff and others in identifying and dealing with substance abusers.
  • Use an appropriate drug and alcohol testing component, designed to prevent the hiring of workers who use illegal drugs; provide early identification and treatment referral for employees with drug or alcohol problems.
  • Offer an employee assistance program that provides counseling for employees and their family members.

Kathy Gurchiek is associate editor for HR News. She can be reached at kgurchiek@shrm.org

Related Articles:

Dozens failing drug tests fired, but RV plant keeps rolling, HR News, April, 28, 2005

Helping workers cheat on drug tests is a big business, HR News, June 22, 2005

Related Sources:

Drug Testing Policy, SHRM HR Knowledge Center

Drug Testing Toolkit, SHRM HR Knowledge Center

For the latest HR-related business and government news, go daily to www.shrm.org/hrnews

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