Workplace Drug Positives Down Significantly Since 1988 Law

By Roy Maurer Nov 25, 2013

The passage of the Drug-Free Workplace Act in 1988 led to employers’ greater awareness of the dangers of illicit drug use in the workplace, the implementation of workplace drug education and drug-monitoring programs, and a dramatic decline in positive tests for drug use among U.S. workers, according to a group of drug-testing industry experts.

“The good news is that, among employers who include drug testing, we’re seeing much lower positivity rates overall since 1988,” said Barry Sample, director of science and technology for Quest Diagnostics Employer Solutions, a provider of diagnostic health care services, including workplace drug screening.

According to Quest Diagnostics’ 2013 Drug Testing Index, the annual positivity rates for urinalysis drug tests, including pre-employment and random testing for the combined U.S. public and private workforce, have fallen 74 percent from 13.6 percent in 1988 to 3.5 percent in June 2012. The data, based on more than 125 million tests, shows:

  • The positivity rate for safety-sensitive federal workers subject to drug-monitoring regulations—such as truck drivers, train operators, and airline and nuclear power plant workers—declined by 38 percent since 1992, from 2.6 percent to 1.6 percent in 2012.
  • The positivity rate for the U.S. general workforce declined by 60 percent, from 10.3 percent in 1992 to 4.1 percent in 2012.

These results provide the best evidence that the Drug-Free Workplace Act and the public and private initiatives it helped to spur have led to steep declines in drug use among much of the American workforce, said Laura Shelton, executive director of the Drug and Alcohol Testing Industry Association. “While more needs to be done to reduce illicit drug use by workers, we should take heart from the tremendous progress employers have made to create safer workplaces for millions of Americans,” she said.

A deeper look at the data, however, reveals that despite the declines in overall drug use since 1988, Americans have migrated to a different set of drugs for which positivity rates have increased markedly.

The positivity rate for amphetamines, including prescription medications such as Adderall, has nearly tripled in the general U.S. workforce since 1997, from 0.3 percent to 0.9 percent.

Also troubling is the positivity rates for prescription opiates, which include hydrocodone, hydromorphone, oxycodone and oxymorphone. Rates for these drugs have more than doubled over the last decade—oxycodone use has gone up 71 percent since 2005—and are reflective of national prescribing trends that have come under recent scrutiny.

Employers need to be aware of the risk associated with the use of prescription opiates and stimulants, which should be a continuing concern, Sample said. Quest data show that 60 percent of American workers misuse and abuse their prescription medications and that, not surprisingly, workers who were tested for drugs after accidents are four times more likely to have opiates in their systems than those tested before being hired.

“What employers may not know is that the No. 1 prescribed drug in America is some formulation that includes the painkiller hydrocodone, which can be addictive. Employers need to understand the potential impact of these types of prescription drugs on workplace safety,” he said.

Testing for marijuana is another area that is cause for concern and getting trickier. Testing data show a steady decline in marijuana positivity, a trend that is running counter to the general societal movement toward increased use and public acceptance of the drug. Several states have legalized marijuana with a prescription, and Colorado and Washington state recently legalized recreational marijuana use, which could add complexity to an employer’s drug-testing program.

25-Year Focus on Workplace Drug Abuse

The Drug-Free Workplace Act only required federal contractors to agree to provide drug-free workplaces as a precondition of receiving a contract or grant from a federal agency. Even though its direct impact was minimal, the law is credited with being the catalyst for further legislation mandating drug testing for “safety-sensitive” employees and pushing employers to focus on reducing drugs in the workplace.

Mark de Bernardo, executive director of the Institute for a Drug-Free Workplace, a policymaking coalition representing employers, recalled that workplace drug policies were not really in place before the 1988 law. Since then, “America’s workplaces are moving in the right direction, and that is recognized by employers and employees alike,” he said.

A 2011 poll conducted by the Society for Human Resource Management found that 57 percent of U.S. employers required all job candidates to pass a drug test, and another 10 percent tested select safety-sensitive job candidates only.

“Since the passage of the act 25 years ago, employers have increasingly embraced drug- and alcohol-testing programs and reaped the benefits of these programs,” Shelton said. “Drug-free workplace programs promote safety and have a positive impact on workplace satisfaction by increasing productivity and decreasing workplace injuries, absenteeism and turnover.”

Shelton noted that education and training needs to be ongoing to incorporate changes in the drug-testing industry, new regulations and changes as new drugs become prevalent.

Calvina Fay, executive director of the Drug-Free America Foundation, a drug-prevention policy nonprofit, said her organization has found that not only do employers benefit from drug testing but that “most employees see a drug-free workplace as a benefit.”

She stressed that drug-free workplace programs need to be comprehensive, and not just based on testing. “Training—even if it’s online—is an important component to a drug-free program,” she said.

De Bernardo cautioned employers not to underestimate the risks associated with the misuse and abuse of prescription drugs.

“It’s not nearly on employer radar screens as much as it should be,” he said. “Given the liability for industrial accidents or product defects or workplace injuries involving prescription drug abuse, employers cannot afford not to address this issue.”

De Bernardo added that company-sponsored employee assistance programs (EAPs) are the “best shot employees with a drug problem will ever have for going straight.” He credited EAPs’ high success rate to the support of co-workers, the incentive of continued employment and family counseling.

“One of the goals of a drug-free workplace program is deterrence, but another is detection,” he said. “Many company programs will refer employees for evaluations, counseling and treatment, effectively giving them a second chance.”

One of the most critical changes in employee drug testing since 1988 is pre-employment drug screening being the “norm for employers today,” de Bernardo said. “If you’re getting out of high school or college and looking for work, or just changing jobs, you expect to be drug-tested.”

Today, drug testing is legal nationwide although certain states do have restrictions.

When it comes to random testing of employees, de Bernardo said it is not only the most objective and fairest type of screening but also the most effective at deterrence and detection.

De Bernardo noted that in most workplaces—everywhere except San Francisco and Boulder, Colo.—for-cause testing is the prerogative of the employer. “Most of the drug-testing laws and court decisions in this country are in favor of employers having the ability to do drug testing,” he said, “because when there is a balancing test between the legitimate privacy interests of the individual vs. the interests of the company, co-workers and customers who use the products and services to be in a drug-free environment, not have product defects and not compromise safety and health, that balance will come out in favor of drug testing.”

Roy Maurer is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

Follow him on Twitter @SHRMRoy.​


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