In organizations with high employee absenteeism rates (more than 15 percent), the implementation of a drug testing program appears to have an impact.

Drug Testing Promotes Workplace Safety

You can maintain your program effectiveness by understanding which drugs are being abused and modifying your testing panel based on that information.

An effective drug testing program promotes a safe, productive workplace in addition to a multitude of other benefits, according to a recent industry poll. This article explores the many advantages of employee drug testing and illustrates how a program's effectiveness is directly impacted by quickly evolving industry trends and federal testing legislation.

How Effective is Drug Testing?
Employment drug testing is a powerful risk tool that provides far-reaching organizational benefits. In addition to promoting a safer, more productive workplace, it can help to decrease employee turnover and absenteeism, reduce employer risk, and lower workers' compensation incidence rates, according to Drug Testing Efficacy 2011, a recent poll conducted by The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) and the Drug and Alcohol Testing Industry Association (DATIA). The poll, one of the most comprehensive and current surveys regarding drug testing available today, questioned employers ranging from 500 to 2,500 employees, most of which were publicly owned, for-profit organizations. The following key points were discovered:

  • What percentage of organizations conducted pre-employment drug testing in 2011? More than half of the organizations (57 percent) indicated they conduct drug testing on all job candidates. More than one-quarter (29 percent) of the organizations do not have a pre-employment drug testing program.
  • Is there a connection between drug testing programs and absenteeism? Yes. In organizations with high employee absenteeism rates (more than 15 percent), the implementation of a drug testing program appears to have an impact. Nine percent of organizations reported high absenteeism rates (more than 15 percent) prior to a drug testing program, whereas only 4 percent of organizations reported high absenteeism rates after the implementation of a drug testing program, a decrease of approximately 50 percent.
  • Are workers' compensation incidence rates affected by drug testing programs? Yes. In organizations with high workers' compensation incidence rates (more than 6 percent), the implementation of a drug testing program appears to have an impact. Fourteen percent of organizations reported high workers' compensation incidence rates prior to a drug testing program, whereas only 6 percent of organizations reported similar rates of workers' compensation after the implementation of a drug testing program, a decrease of approximately 50 percent.
  • Do drug testing programs improve employee productivity rates? Nearly one-fifth (19 percent) of organizations experienced an increase in productivity after the implementation of a drug testing program.
  • How much of an impact do drug testing programs have on employee turnover rates? Sixteen percent of organizations saw a decrease in employee turnover rates after the implementation of drug testing programs.
  • Do multinational organizations apply similar drug testing protocols/policies in the United States and globally? Nearly three-quarters (72 percent) of organizations with multinational operations indicated that all, almost all, or some of the same protocols/policies are applied while conducting drug tests outside the United States.

Maintaining Program Efficacy
Just as there are many types of drug testing programs, ranging from those regulated by the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) to privately developed and managed programs, there are also many testing options available today. However, in order to create the most appropriate and effective testing program, you must first understand what's happening in the industry.

The drug testing industry was born 30 years ago, after the launch of federal drug testing requirements in the 1980s. A lot has changed in 30 years. The types of drugs being abused are quickly evolving, and so are the abusers.

  • While marijuana is still the number one most-abused drug globally, prescription drugs have moved into second place, overshadowing cocaine. Technology has played a big role in these changes. For example, the street distributor has morphed into the Internet distributor, making it easier than ever to access prescription medication without ever visiting a doctor.
  • The use of pill mills, which are clinics, doctors, or pharmacies that are prescribing large amounts of prescription medication for non-medical use, is also becoming prominent in the United States, prompting abusers to travel across state lines to access these mills.

In lock step with these trends, new federal legislation and program guidelines are also appearing. For example, in addition to standard illicit drugs, prescription medication and designer drugs must now be considered for testing. Just two years ago, in October 2010, DOT expanded its standard test panel to include Ecstasy as part of the amphetamines drug panel and also lowered cutoff levels of testing for amphetamines and cocaine. The result was as expected: DOT-regulated programs are seeing an increase in positives for both categories.

Now, the U.S. government is enhancing its program even further. A breakthrough this year has been the approval by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services of the recommendations made by the Drug Test Advisory Board (DTAB), which include testing for synthetic opiates such as hydrocodone and oxycodone, also known as Vicodin or Oxycontin, by their brand names. Additionally, DTAB recommended using oral fluid testing as an alternative testing method. The process for DOT to implement these recommendations still could take years, but this is a big first step in modifying the federal drug testing program, one that provides guidance on potential drugs you can test for within your own program.

Designer drugs such as synthetic marijuana and synthetic amphetamines are also on the federal government's radar. Known as K2/Spice and Bath Salts, these drugs are manufactured and marketed in such a way as to avoid legal roadblocks to distribution, which makes testing for them difficult and expensive. President Obama signed the Synthetic Drug Abuse Prevention Act of 2012 into law on July 9, 2012, as part of S. 3187, the Food and Drug Administration Safety and Innovation Act. The legislation bans synthetic compounds commonly found in synthetic marijuana ("K2" or "Spice"), synthetic stimulants ("Bath Salts"), and hallucinogens by placing them under Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act.

This new law will make it easier for law enforcement agencies to take action against the manufacturers, importers, and sellers of these products. While this represents progress in the battle against synthetic drugs, authorities must continue to monitor and update the list of prohibited substances as manufacturers modify the composition of the drugs to circumvent legislation. Some employers have begun testing for these types of drugs in reasonable cause situations.

While DOT and most non-regulated employers test a standard five-panel, these changes in prescription and designer drug abuse are creating a legitimate opportunity for employers to expand that panel to include additional drugs. For example, LexisNexis Occupational Health Services, Inc. a large third party administrator, notes that its manufacturing customers are moving to a nine-panel test with an additional two drugs -— hydrocodone and oxycodone. An effective drug testing program promotes a safe, productive workplace. By monitoring industry trends, you can maintain your program effectiveness by understanding which drugs are being abused and modifying your testing panel based on that information. Likewise, laws and regulations will help dictate what can be tested and how that testing should be conducted. Information from DEA about common drugs of abuse is available here.

It is always recommended that employers retain internal or external legal counsel specializing in drug testing to review drug and alcohol testing laws in the states where their applicants and employees reside, and states where they have physical locations. An organization such as DATIA is also a great resource to help you stay updated on drug testing industry trends and legislation. Visit the website to learn more about DATIA and membership opportunities.

This article originally appeared in the October 2012 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

About the Author

Melissa DiThomas is a Product Manager for LexisNexis Risk Solutions, where she leverages more than 15 years of industry experience to streamline and simplify drug testing and occupational health services. As a published author in the Drug and Alcohol Testing Industry Association's FOCUS magazine and a DATIA board member, she continues to lead the industry with insight, clarity, and best practice suggestions. She is a native of Pittsburgh and graduated from the University of Pittsburgh with a bachelor's degree in Business Administration and Communications.

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