Take the Waiting Out of The Waiting Game

New technology makes drug testing faster, easier.

WHILE America as a nation continues to struggle with the problem of drug abuse, U.S. employers continue to make progress in their war on drugs. A key weapon in that war continues to be drug testing. The screening of job applicants and employees for the illegal use of drugs has become as much of the fabric of American work life as paychecks and paid sick leave.

The technology of drug testing continues to advance, making the entire screening process faster, more convenient, and more cost-effective. At the top of the list of these advancements is rapid result drug testing devices that make it possible for individuals to be tested, the result to be recorded, applicants to be hired, or current employees to return to work literally within a matter of minutes.

One of the biggest challenges with drug testing today is the waiting . . . waiting for results, that is. However, the faster the result is available, the more efficiently employers can maintain healthy and safe work environments. Rapid drug testing, with either urine or oral fluid devices, represents an attractive alternative for employee drug screening. But it is important to understand exactly what you're getting into by converting from the time-tested, reliable, lab-based testing program your company may have been using for years. Following are six key issues every employer should consider before implementing a rapid result testing program.

1. Accuracy.
In the early days of drug testing, accuracy was its biggest flaw. Over time, the issue became a moot point as the technology caught up with the hype. Today, drug testing, when conducted properly, is considered highly accurate.

What about the technology behind rapid result testing? The best rapid drug testing technology available today is at least as accurate as the screening technology used in government-certified laboratories. Unfortunately, not all rapid drug testing technology is equal. Employers are best advised to use only devices that have been cleared by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which has become the "gold" standard for rapid drug testing products.

According to the National On-Site Testing Association: "Having an FDA clearance requires a manufacturer to comply with federal regulations, including labeling requirements regarding the accuracy and precision of the test. FDA clearance demonstrates that the product has been proven to be 'safe and effective.' FDA clearance encourages higher quality in products by verifying a product's performance prior to marketing. FDA clearance enforces good manufacturing practices. FDA clearance can be used in court as evidence of the test's reliability."

Also, look for a provider with a long history in the drug testing industry and a proven record of customer satisfaction. This will help ensure that you get the technical, legal, and policy support you need.

2. Speed.
Rapid drug testing is faster than traditional methods in a number of ways. For instance:

  • The collection itself requires less time because it can take place at the work site.
  • The analysis typically takes place within minutes of the collection.
  • The final result can be available within a very short time, making it possible to make fast hiring and disciplinary decisions.

Yet some rapid drug testing products are actually faster than others. The important thing to look for is a product that gives a result as quickly as possible . . . within just a few minutes. And look for a product with a long-lasting result. Some rapid drug testing devices must be read within a specific window of time, say, between five and 10 minutes after the collection takes place. Beyond that window, the true result is no longer available--the result actually deteriorates.

3. Efficiency.
While drug testing helps to make your company a better place to work, it sometimes consumes a lot of work time. For example, in a post-accident scenario, the clock starts ticking immediately following the mishap. A supervisor must either order the drug test or send the worker to someone who will. The collection site is notified that the worker is coming in; another employee typically escorts the injured person to the collection site; a sample is collected and the collector sends it to a lab for analysis . . . all the while, the clock continues to tick.

Meanwhile, the injured worker cannot return to his normal job because if he is under the influence of drugs, he may cause another accident. So he waits, usually at home, sometimes with pay. Your other employees fill in for the injured worker or you hire a temporary worker, typically at a much higher pay rate to do the injured person's job.

With rapid drug testing, three very positive things happen: 1) the test result will be known within minutes of the accident occurring, even if you still send the worker to a collection site; 2) because you know the test result right away, there may be no need to suspend the worker and incur unnecessary downtime; and 3) no one has to do two jobs while an injured worker is out for a day or more, thus maintaining productivity and employee morale.

4. Cost-Effectiveness.
When pricing a typical drug test there are several factors to consider: the collection, the shipping, the analysis, the medical review, the results reporting, and the data management. There's a lot to think about, and it all adds up, price-wise, beyond the simple cost of a laboratory analysis. While you may want or need all of these support services, rapid drug testing makes it possible to decrease the price considerably.

For example, if you do the test on-site at the workplace, you eliminate collection costs and much of the shipping costs because negative results, which represent the vast majority of tests, do not necessarily require a lab confirmation. Only those samples that are confirmed will require review by an MRO, again representing a significant cost savings.

In reality, rapid result testing makes it possible to cut the cost of a single drug test in half, if not more.

5. Legality.
While there are a handful of states that regulate testing and place restrictions on certain types of testing, drug testing is legal in every state. However, because many state drug-testing laws were passed before the advent of rapid drug testing in the workplace, there is some confusion about this new technology from a legal standpoint.

Rapid drug testing is now legal in virtually every state. although some states do regulate it. For example, a handful of states limit rapid result testing to pre-employment screening. Other states specifically require a lab-based confirmation test to be performed when the rapid result screen is positive.

A number of other states have voluntary laws that require drug testing to be conducted by certified laboratories in order to qualify for certain benefits (e.g., discounts on worker's compensation premiums). Yet, if an employer is either not interested in or otherwise unable to qualify for the benefit of the voluntary law (e.g., companies that are self-insured), rapid drug testing can be used.

Most state drug testing laws do not specifically mention or necessarily restrict rapid drug testing. Further, several states (Hawaii, California, and Oklahoma, among others) have recently ruled in favor of rapid drug testing. Employers are wise to check with their corporate counsel regarding drug-testing laws, in general, in their state(s).

6. Practicality.
Every company that conducts drug testing should have a written policy. A description of how drug testing will be administered is, of course, a key part of such a policy. When a company either adds or entirely converts its program to rapid drug testing, adjustments to the policy must be made; these adjustments are not difficult to make.

Ten Things to Ask for in a Rapid Drug Testing Device

In reality, rapid drug testing is very practical from a policy perspective and can contribute to the overall effectiveness of your program. For example, because rapid drug testing is easy to conduct, testing procedures typically become less complex. As a result, supervisors are less reluctant to initiate a test knowing that it won't take long to have the result. Further, a fast test with a rapid result helps keep productivity flowing and minimizes interruptions in the workday.

Review five key components in your policy when you adopt rapid drug testing:
1. Objectives (why you test makes it possible to better determine how best to test)
2. Drug testing procedures (who does what, when, and how)
3. Disciplinary options (with rapid results, decisions can be made faster)
4. Hiring procedures (be prepared to make quicker hiring decisions)
5. State drug testing laws (if you are a multi-state employer, you will need to review the state-specific amendments to your policy relative to rapid drug testing)

Rapid result testing gives companies that considered drug testing inconvenient something new to consider. And for companies that already test for drugs, it is usually a good fit with an existing program. Consider the following:
1. You're already dealing with collection sites that can administer the rapid drug test with little or no additional training.
2. You're already using chain-of-custody protocols.
3. You're already dealing with a certified laboratory to take care of any confirmation testing need that may arise.
4. You're already working with a Medical Review Officer who can verify lab confirmation results.
5. Your supervisors already are trained to refer employees and applicants for drug tests under certain circumstances.
Rapid result testing helps employers make hiring decisions faster and disciplinary decisions more efficiently. Rapid drug testing just makes the whole process easier and faster. . . . It takes the waiting out of the waiting game.

Ten Things to Ask for in a Rapid Drug Testing Device

1. FDA clearance
2. A history of proven performance
3. A simple-to-use device
4. A device that integrates collection, testing, and transporting
5. Temperature measuring capabilities
6. Legal support from the product manufacturer
7. Independent scientific data to back up accuracy claims
8. Lengthy shelf life
9. A fast, long-lasting result that is easy to read
10. Around-the-clock technical support

This article originally appeared in the April 2003 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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