Drug and Alcohol Testing—Adding value to Your Bottom Line

By Robert Capwell May 6, 2008

The effects of substance abuse in the workplace can be among the most costly, yet hidden, line items on a company’s balance sheet. Costs associated with workplace accidents, lost production and workers’ compensation have a great impact on the bottom line, and they also can have negative overall effects on employee morale.

According to a 2006 study published by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), most individuals categorized as drug users (74.9 percent), binge drinkers (79.4 percent) and heavy drinkers (79.2 percent) are employed. The study concluded that these numbers have remained relatively consistent, although they tend to vary by industry. The accommodations, construction and food service industries lead the survey with the highest number of abusers. On the other end of the spectrum were the education, public administration and utility industries with the lowest percentages of abusers.

There is no comprehensive federal law that regulates drug testing in the private sector. Public employers must comply with the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Suspicion-less testing by private employers may be challenged under state laws or state constitutions.

The Drug-Free Workplace Act does impose certain education requirements for companies that do business with the government; however, the components of the act do not require or restrict testing.

The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) requires industries that fall under its regulatory umbrella to conduct random drug and alcohol testing for workers in safety-sensitive areas, including testing for reasonable suspicion and/or on a post-accident basis. Industries that are regulated by DOT have some definite rules and regulations to follow pertaining to drug and alcohol testing, but the rest of us are primarily on our own when setting policies and preventing substance abuse within the work environment.

The statistics listed in the SAMHSA study can be alarming, especially among industries listed at the top of substance abuse lists. But there are ways that employers can help protect their workplace culture and bottom line from the adverse effects of drug and alcohol abuse.

Defense Mechanisms

Incorporating the use of drug and alcohol testing in the workplace is a matter of corporate culture, company policy and even compliance in some industries. Even if an employer does not have a drug and alcohol testing policy, adopting a “zero tolerance” statement is the first step in communicating its disdain for such abusive behaviors.

Notifying candidates at the time of application that the company has zero tolerance for drug and alcohol abusers, as well as providing employees with clear and direct corporate statements in company handbooks and “break room” signs, sends a clear message that abusers are not welcome at that place of employment. Following is a sample statement that can be incorporated within corporate documentation:

[Company Name] is committed to providing a safe and healthy environment for its employees by promoting a drug- and alcohol-free workplace. [Company Name] prohibits the use, distribution, manufacture or possession of controlled substances, unauthorized drugs, intoxicants or drug paraphernalia on any corporate premises or work sites, including company vehicles or private vehicles parked on company premises. In addition, employees may not use or possess open containers of alcohol on company premises or work sites, except as permitted at company-sponsored events.


While an official corporate statement is a great first step, it is not enough. The only real way to ensure that a zero-tolerance policy is taken seriously is to back it up with appropriate action. A good policy should be comprehensive and well thought out, addressing considerations such as who should be tested and when in the organization and the ramifications associated with individuals’ positive test results.

Below are several key considerations to address when creating a substance abuse testing program:

  • Purpose of the policy.
  • Federal and state regulatory statutes and industry requirements.
  • Frequency of testing (e.g., pre-employment, post-offer, random, post-accident and/or reasonable suspicion testing).
  • Individuals to be tested (e.g., all employees, certain job classes, full-time/part-time, contractors, temps, etc.).
  • Test type and testing venue (e.g., urine, oral fluid, hair testing, blood, as well as lab-based vs. instant on-site).
  • Number and types of drugs to be included in screenings (5, 6, 7, 9 or extended panel).
  • Need for adulterant testing.
  • DOT testing requirements, if applicable.
  • Ways to address positive results (e.g., retesting, termination, rehabilitation, etc.).
  • Test administration (i.e., in-house or third-party administration).
  • Security and confidentiality concerns.
  • Employee education and training.
  • Benchmarking and regular program review requirements.
  • Tracking/measuring program effectiveness, bottom line contribution.
  • Steps to roll out program and “disclosure” policy to employees.

Always seek the advice of legal council for further considerations when adopting a policy.

Testing Options

Determining what drugs to test for and how to test for them are a couple of the biggest decisions a company needs to make when creating its drug and alcohol testing program. A standard 5- panel drug test is used to detect the most widely abused drugs, such as marijuana, cocaine, opiates, PCP and amphetamines. Other options for panel drug tests—7, 9, 10 or extended—include screening for additional drugs such as benzodiazepines, barbiturates, methadone, propoxyphene, methaqualone, fentanyl, extended opiates and ecstasy.

There are a number of screening methods from which companies can choose for test administration. As with any program, it is critical to map out the suitability of each method to the work environment and determine how it would, or would not, meet the company’s needs. For example, is the goal to receive instant test results, or do regulations, such as from DOT, require a lab-based urine drug test at a third-party collection site? Does the testing facility used have the appropriate setup for on-site testing?

Lab-based urine drug testing can be administered on-site or at a third-party collection site. Companies relying on a third-party collection site typically can expect lab-analyzed test results to be reported electronically within 24 to 48 hours. Employers that conduct on-site, instant urine testing generally have an occupational health nurse or someone qualified to gather specimens, along with proper facilities to do so. This type of testing generally is conducted within manufacturing or construction industry settings, where accidents occur more frequently and the need to get a worker quickly tested is crucial, especially in a post-accident situation. Positive results will still need to be shipped and tested in a controlled laboratory environment for further analysis and confirmation.

Oral-based (saliva) testing also can be administered on-site with little effort and training. This is an efficient tool for administering a large number of tests in a short period of time. Samples are gathered and sent out to a lab, where results are analyzed in a controlled environment.

Saliva testing can be conducted using a screening mechanism that will provide results instantly, but samples must be shipped to a lab for confirmation testing if a result is positive. Oral fluid testing is an appropriate screening method when there is a suspicion of the use of drugs or alcohol and you need a test conducted quickly. However, the testing of oral fluid offers a limited window of time within which the substance stays in the subject’s body.

Hair testing, on the other hand, is considered a “lifestyle” test, as traces of drugs can be detected for several months or years within a hair follicle. This type of test, used mostly in high-security situations or in situations where individuals might have access to pharmaceuticals, is more expensive and traditionally takes longer to analyze.

DOT Guidelines Compliance

Companies in the industries that are regulated by DOT are required by law to conduct lab-based urine drug and alcohol testing, and their screening programs are subject to potential audit by the department. Companies hiring certain classifications of drivers, train operators, ship captains or pilots are required to comply with screening mandates within the Federal Department of Transportation guidelines, 49 CFR Section 40. Rules include the maintenance of auditable records pertaining to pre-employment, random and post-accident drug and alcohol testing. It might make sense to outsource programs that must comply with complex DOT regulations to a third-party administrator because of the comprehensiveness of the expectations.

Use of Third-Party Administrators

Like many other pieces of background screening programs, drug and alcohol testing programs can be managed in-house or outsourced to a knowledgeable third-party administrator (TPA).Like many other things in the screening arena, managing a drug and alcohol testing program is a matter of time and resources. If companies conduct screening only on a pre-employment basis or on limited hires per month, self-administration might be an option. But DOT compliance or screening across multiple states can get quite complicated and costly to manage. In such cases, a TPA can assist in policy creation, administration and management of substance abuse programs. These providers can have in-depth knowledge of regulations specific to an industry, which also might include knowledge of state and federal regulations.

Many offer the certification of a medical review officer (MRO) to review results. An MRO is a physician qualified to analyze and certify testing results. This process is mandatory for some states and for DOT compliance. In addition, providing the necessary supplies, researching collection sites in the vicinity of applicants, and tracking down specimens and results are some of the other functions a TPA provides. A number of TPAs offer background screening services as part of their overall product offering to incorporate a one-stop shopping experience.

Although adopting a substance abuse policy and testing program can seem a bit overwhelming, companies will reap the benefits once their programs are completed and needed vendor contracts have been established. Positive return on investment will be evident quickly, including signs of a safe, productive and secure work environment for all employees.

Robert Capwell is chief knowledge officer of Employment Background Investigations Inc. and co-chair of the National Association of Professional Background Screeners’ Board of Directors.

Editor’s Note: This article should not be construed as legal advice.


Job Finder

Find an HR Job Near You
Post a Job


Find the Right Vendor for Your HR Needs

SHRM’s HR Vendor Directory contains over 10,000 companies

Search & Connect