Drug Tests For Your Employees

Julie Shenkman
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More job applicants are finding that part of the application process involves a pre-employment drug test. A large number of Fortune 500 companies do drug testing, as well as an increasing number of smaller firms.

The U.S. Department of Labor estimates that drug use in the workplace costs employers $75 billion to $100 billion annually in lost time, accidents, health care and workers' compensation costs. Sixty-five percent of all accidents on the job are related to drug or alcohol.

In 1987, a national testing laboratory found that 18.1 percent of all workers tested had positive results. By 1997, that figure was down to 5.4 percent. Experts debate whether this means drug use has fallen, or drug abusers simply avoid employers that test and instead apply at firms that do not.

The majority of drug testing is done by sending an applicant to a collection site, where a urine sample is obtained and sent to a certified laboratory for analysis. Negative results are normally available within 24 hours. Some employers use instant test kits that are similar in operation to a home pregnancy test. New testing methods, such as hair testing and saliva testing are also being used.

Five-panel test common

Most employers utilize a standard five-panel test of "street drugs," consisting of marijuana (THC), cocaine, PCP, opiates (such as codeine and morphine) and amphetamines (including methamphetamine). Some employers use a 10-panel test, which includes prescription drugs that are legal to possess and use. Employers can also test for blood alcohol levels.

Although each drug and each person is different, most drugs will stay in the system about two to four days. For chronic users of certain drugs, such as marijuana or PCP, results can be detected for up to 14 days, and sometimes much longer. Sedatives such as Valium may stay in the system for up to 30 days.

To avoid the complications from "second hand" marijuana smoke, most labs will set a higher threshold before reporting THC in the system.

Most employers will require an applicant to give the urine sample within a specific period of time, so that a drug user does not wait until the drugs leave the system.

Laboratories and collection sites also have methods to determine if the applicant has attempted to alter the test sample by drinking excessive water, contaminating the sample, or by using some sort of product that is sold in the hope it will mask drug use.

When results are positive

Testing labs have extensive procedures to reconfirm a positive test before reporting it to an employer. Most drug testing programs use the services of an independent physician called a medical review officer to review all test results. In the case of a positive result, the officer will normally contact the applicant to determine if there is a medical explanation.

If the positive test is confirmed, the job applicant can usually pay for a retesting of the sample at a laboratory of their choice. Urine samples for all positive tests are retained for that purpose. Merely taking a new test is not helpful since the drugs may have left the person's system. Certified laboratories will stand behind their results and make expert witnesses available. All drug-testing results should be maintained on a confidential basis.

The most common type of testing program is pre-employment. Courts have consistently upheld the legality of requiring a pre-employment drug test as a condition of employment.

If a firm plans to test current employees, the employer should have policies and procedures in place, including supervisorial training and steps to take if there is a positive test.

Post-employment testing can include random testing (for safety-sensitive positions), individualized suspicion testing, post-accident testing, and testing that is legally required in certain industries, such as Department of Transportation requirements for truck drivers.

©2001 by Lester S. Rosen

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