Failed Workplace Drug Tests Reach 12-Year High

American workers are testing positive for drug use at the highest rate since 2004, according to the annual Quest Diagnostics Drug Testing Index. This makes it critical for employers to review—and possibly update—their substance abuse policies and drug-testing practices. 

The Quest study revealed positive urine drug screens for 4.2 percent of the U.S. workforce in 2016, up from 4.0 percent in 2015. The rate has not reached this level since hitting 4.5 percent in 2004.

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"This year's findings are remarkable because they show increased rates of drug positivity for the most common illicit drugs across virtually all drug test specimen types and in all testing populations," said Barry Sample, Ph.D., senior director of science and technology for Quest Diagnostics Employer Solutions, in a press statement.

"Our analysis suggests that employers committed to creating a safe, drug-free work environment should be alert to the potential for drug use among their workforce," he added.

Employment Policies

Employers should remind workers about their drug-testing and substance abuse policies, said Jennifer Betts, an attorney with Ogletree Deakins in Pittsburgh.

"The more transparency, the better," she said. "If the reason for the policy is deterrence, remember that you can't deter without awareness. If the policy is buried in a 50- to 100-page handbook, it's probably not effective."

Furthermore, if an employer's policy is from decades ago and the only time workers see it is when they're hired and asked to sign an acknowledgment, that's not going to be enough, said Matthew Nieman, an attorney with Jackson Lewis in Washington, D.C., and general counsel for the Institute for a Drug-Free Workplace.

This is particularly true for businesses with a mature workforce and few new hires, he said. "Employers may talk annually with their workforce about avoiding harassment and other forms of discrimination, and they should consider addressing this topic, too."

Employers also need to consider applicable state laws when developing their policies and practices, said Howard Mavity, an attorney with Fisher Phillips in Atlanta. He added that policies should be updated to address recent trends in substance abuse. For example, the rise in prescription drug abuse and its effect on workers should be discussed.

"This is a societal issue, but it's also a workplace issue," Mavity noted. "Employers have a big role to play in this."

Marijuana Use

Positive test results for marijuana use continue to rise in safety-sensitive jobs that require drug testing under federal law—like truck drivers and pilots—and in the general workforce, according to the Quest study.

In Colorado and Washington—the first states to legalize recreational marijuana use—the overall urine-test positivity rate surpassed the national average in 2016.

Marijuana use is increasing everywhere—in states that have legalized it for recreational or medicinal use and in states that have not, Mavity said. "This reflects a change in attitude more than a change in laws."

But that doesn't mean employers have to tolerate its use in the workplace.

Mavity noted that marijuana use is still illegal under federal law and that courts have sided with employers that enforce their marijuana-related drug policies, even in states where it is legal.

Studies have shown that the residual effect of marijuana on the body, even after minimal use, can still impact reflexes and judgment 48 hours later, he added.

The dilemma for employers is that they may not be too concerned anymore about marijuana use outside the office, but it could still create a workplace problem, particularly for employees in safety-sensitive positions, Mavity said.

Nieman said employers should think about their underlying reasons for drug testing. Is it for safety purposes? Is it because the employer wants all workers to be performing at their best? Should marijuana be removed from pre-employment drug screens?

If the goal is to have a safe workplace, then the political or philosophical conversation about legalizing marijuana shouldn't matter as much, he said. "If you're testing for cocaine, why not test for marijuana? It's about not wanting employees driving a forklift if not they're not at their best."

Cocaine and Methamphetamines

The Quest study showed that the positivity rate for cocaine use rose for the fourth consecutive year in the general U.S. workforce and for the second consecutive year for safety-sensitive jobs that require drug testing under federal law.

Post-accident urine tests showed cocaine use twice as often as pre-employment drug tests.

"While a positive test doesn't prove drug use caused the accident, it raises the question as to whether it played a role," Sample noted.

Positive drug-test results for amphetamines—including methamphetamine—also continue to climb. The year-to-year increase can largely be attributed to prescription amphetamine use, but positive methamphetamine results have also ticked upward in recent years.

"Although methamphetamine positivity in urine testing declined between 2005 and 2008, the positivity rate plateaued between 2008 and 2012, and has increased steadily since," according to a Quest press release. Furthermore, between 2012 and 2016, the positivity rate climbed 64 percent in the general U.S. workforce.

Employee Assistance Programs

When it comes to workplace safety, drug tests are useful but they shouldn't be the only tool, Nieman said.

Betts noted that many employers have a great employee assistance program (EAP), but employees don't always know about it. "Even if they do know about it, they might not realize it's confidential."

An EAP is generally offered through a health insurance provider and assists employees with a variety of personal and work-related problems—such as substance abuse, performance issues and emotional distress.

An EAP may also aid workers who are dealing with stressful family situations or other issues that may lead to substance abuse, Nieman said. Employers should show workers that in addition to taking drug use seriously, they take health and safety seriously as well, he said.


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