Drug Testing: How Both Employers and Employees Benefit. When It Comes to Having a Work Environment Free from the Dangers of Substance Abuse, Employers and Employees Share the Same Goals

By Current, William F. | Occupational Hazards, December 2002 | Go to article overview

Drug Testing: How Both Employers and Employees Benefit. When It Comes to Having a Work Environment Free from the Dangers of Substance Abuse, Employers and Employees Share the Same Goals


Current, William F., Occupational Hazards


Drug use in the United States is up. A recent study by the National Center of Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University reports that the emotional stress and strain caused by the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, combined with the threat of bioterrorism, have given rise to greater numbers of Americans seeking treatment for drug and alcohol abuse. The study reveals that admissions for treatment increased 10 percent to 12 percent nationwide. Joseph Califano, chairman of the Center and former U.S. Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare, stated that the increased demand for treatment corresponds to higher consumption of drugs and alcohol.

Unfortunately, the increase in drug use shows up in the workplace. About 75 percent of current illicit drug users 18 and older are employed--more than 10 million U.S. workers. On a daily basis, based on 250 workdays in a year, at least 42,000 Americans are coming to work stoned or getting "high" while on the job. In fact, a national survey of callers to the 800-COCAINE hotline found that 75 percent used drugs while at work. The federal government once claimed that if all workers ages 18-40 were administered a drug test on any given day, as many as 25 percent would test positive.

What Employees Know

Employees know that drug use in the workplace can create problems and that drug use adversely affects job performance, workplace safety, and many other work-related activities.

A 1996 survey of employees conducted by the Hazelden Foundation discovered that nearly 61 percent know people who have shown up for work drunk or stoned. And approximately 62 percent of employees in an Ohio-based study said that they personally know or know someone who has personal knowledge of a coworker whose substance abuse has interfered with their work.

In a series of 14 state Gallup surveys of employees' attitudes about drug abuse, the vast majority of workers said substance abuse in their own workplaces either "greatly" or "somewhat" affects a variety of work-related activities.

In the Gallup surveys employees were asked, "Does substance abuse negatively affect..."

Attendance         64 percent Yes
Productivity       63 percent Yes
Morale             63 percent Yes
Health Care Costs  59 percent Yes
Safety             57 percent Yes

Testing employees for drug abuse is most often conducted for pre-employment, post-accident, random testing, return-to-duty and post-rehabilitation. Substance-abusing employees most commonly test positive for marijuana. It is by far the illegal drug most frequently found in the system of American workers. One major lab reports that 60 percent of all positive drug tests are for marijuana and that 16 percent are for cocaine.

The recent increase in heroin use throughout the United States is reflected in the 9.4 percent positive rate for opiates. Amphetamines are next at 4.9 percent, followed by benzodiazepines (3.9 percent), barbiturates (3.0 percent), propoxyphene (1.6 percent), methadone (.41 percent) and PCP (.34 percent).

What Employees Want

According to a Gallup survey, employees typically favor drug testing of workers in safety-sensitive jobs--95 percent. A majority also favors testing of office workers--69 percent; health care workers--92 percent; and factory workers--81 percent. And the majority favor drug testing workers in their own occupations--78 percent.

Employees want a working environment that is safe. Substance abuse contributes to a very unsafe working environment. Alcohol and drugs are responsible for one in six on-the-job fatalities. The National Safety Council reported that 80 percent of those injured in "serious" drug-related accidents at work are not the drug abusing employees but innocent coworkers and others.

Does drug testing reduce accidents? A number of workplace studies measuring the accident rates of companies before and after implementing drug testing indicate that drug testing is indeed an important safety factor. …

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