We recently passed a milestone in workplace drug testing. Just over 20 years ago, workplace drug testing became a nationwide reality when President Reagan issued an executive order requiring a drug-free federal workplace.1 In 1989 the federal Department of Transportation (DOT) extended the concept to the private sector by requiring private commercial motor carriers it regulates to conduct drug testing of more than three million interstate commercial drivers. In 1994 DOT expanded those rules to include alcohol and more than eight million inter- and intra-state drivers.
Since then more private and public, nonregulated employers have recognized the benefits of testing being enjoyed by their regulated colleagues. It's now believed that as many as 40 million workplace drug tests are conducted every year in this country. According to a recent survey by the Society for Human Resource Management, 84% of responding employers conducted preemployment testing, 73% tested when an employee was suspected of drug use, 58% following accidents, and 39% randomly tested workers.
Employers test because it has been repeatedly shown that the effort is worth it to their bottom line. Consider the following:
According to the 2003 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 74.3% of current, admitted drug users are employed.2
Up to 40% of industrial fatalities and 47% of industrial injuries can be linked to alcohol consumption and alcoholism.3
The National Council on Compensation Insurance estimates that 38 to 50% of all work-related accidents involve drugs or alcohol.
19% of those killed on the job in 1998 had drugs and/or alcohol present in their system, as described in postmortem toxicology reports.4
Employers using drug testing have experienced a 51% reduction in workplace injury rates within two years of implementing a drug testing program.5
A recent study showed that the average company that had drug testing in place experienced an 11.41% reduction in their annual workers' compensation base premium rate. At the same time, companies that did not implement drug testing programs saw no decline.5
Financial rewards from testing cannot be denied, but in my experience these benefits do not mean that employers are more open to treatment and counseling for employees who test positive. I can't offer any scientific reasons, but I can tell you that part of the problem is employer attitude. While helping employers across the country set up drug and alcohol testing programs, I have observed that often HR's goal is to remove the worker with the problem, rather than removing the problem from the worker. A number of states prohibit terminations after the first positive result (e.g., Iowa, Minnesota, Rhode Island) or provide financial incentives to allow the employee to keep his job with counseling and treatment (e.g., Ohio), but overall employers simply do not choose treatment.
Perhaps this can be explained by the fear of being sued if someone with a past positive result is allowed to continue working and hurts someone else. There have been such cases. But one of the main obstacles to treatment is the many misconceptions and myths about counseling and treatment. Employers simply don't know how beneficial treatment can be. I have tried to convince employers that those in recovery (like myself, entering my 25th year) can be among their most trusted employees.
We haven't done a very good job of explaining that treatment works. I wish there was a way to get more employers connected to more counselors so they could see the value of treatment. I don't have the answer. Unfortunately, without an answer more folks who need help will have to find it on their own—outside of the workplace.
W.J. Judge, JD, LLM, is an attorney who has concentrated his practice on research, consultation, litigation assistance, and management training related to the legal issues of substance abuse in the workplace and schools. Judge has participated in regional student drug testing seminars on behalf of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy. He has served as an instructor for the American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine's medical review officer course and as an advisor to the American Society of Addiction Medicine.