The trend toward relaxing drug policies stems from a tendency to view some substances as more or less harmful than others. The reality is, any impairment of any kind is unsafe.

Drugs and Workplace Safety

The U.S. Department of Labor and the National Institute on Drug Abuse have found that employees who suffer from drug or alcohol dependency are nearly three times more likely to either cause or personally experience an injury-related absence from work.

With the rise of unions in the 1800s and the industrial revolution, workplace safety became a rallying cry for workers, particularly in areas such as coal mining, manufacturing, and other employment venues where potential safety hazards existed. While labor movements in Europe were the originators of promoting workplace safety, these efforts eventually made their way to the United States and after years of injuries and fatalities in the American workforce, state and local governments began responding to workers' demands to regulate the workplace and ensure safe workplace environments.

The need for workplace safety in the United States at its beginning primarily focused on equipment and the conditions of the physical workplace. While those issues remain important, a new culprit affecting workplace safety has arrived in force, and the culprit is drugs and drug use by employees.

Over the last 40 years, the U.S. government, law enforcement, and academics have conducted research, including direct observations of the effect of drug use, including illegal substances and prescription medications, on the human brain. And in most cases, the evidence has been clear: When a person is under the influence of a drug, whether for medical purposes or recreational use, the reflexes slow down, the ability to make rational decisions is negatively impacted, and the user can in many cases subject others to unsafe circumstances or environments that can cause injury and even a fatality.

In the 1980s, the U.S. government recognized this issue and formally adopted drug testing for the U.S. military, federal contractors, and, ultimately in 1991, the U.S. Congress passed the Omnibus Transportation Employee Testing Act, which required all agencies under the U.S. Department of Transportation to implement drug and alcohol testing for employees of the nation's transportation industry who performed safety-sensitive functions. This effort by Congress was in response to several well-known tragic accidents that resulted in injury and death where the use of illegal controlled substances was determined to be the cause.

While Congress mandated drug testing for the nation's transportation industry, many employers adopted the philosophy that drug testing employees provides greater workplace safety along with other benefits. Recent statistics estimate that 14.8 million Americans use illegal drugs, and 70 percent of them are employed. Furthermore, a significant percentage of this drug usage occurs at work, or the employees are high when they arrive to their workplace.

These statistics clearly show the potential for a workplace injury, particularly in the areas of transportation, manufacturing, and heavy equipment operation. The need to conduct drug and alcohol testing is crucial to providing a safe environment for employees. The U.S. Department of Labor and the National Institute on Drug Abuse also have found that employees who suffer from drug or alcohol dependency are nearly three times more likely to either cause or personally experience an injury-related absence from work.

The benefits for an employer who chooses a drug-free workplace are numerous and can include a reduction in the employee turnover rate, a reduction in workplace incidents or accidents, improved employee morale, and in many cases a reduction of insurance premiums as it relates to the operations of the business. Furthermore, drug use has a direct impact on violence and criminal behavior, which also can impact workplace safety. The U.S. Department of Justice reports that adults between the ages of 18 to 49 who use marijuana or cocaine were much more likely to commit crimes of all types than those who do not use these illegal substances.

Turning Back the Clock?
In recent years a discussion has begun in which drug-free workplace testing is being questioned. Many who oppose an employer's right to perform drug tests fail to recognize that drug testing directly impacts the ability of an employer in providing a safe workplace for his or her employees. These efforts to limit or eliminate workplace drug testing either choose to ignore or are unaware of how workplace safety became an important part of our nation's historical employer/employee relationship.

Eliminating drug testing in the workplace will not only place employees at risk, but it will turn back more than 100 years of efforts made to protect our nation's workforce and meet the commitments that employers made to their hard-working employees that safety is our priority.

For employers who have or are considering relaxing their workplace drug testing programs as a result of recent changes in how various states respond to individual marijuana use, there must be a clear understanding of two major impacts, which are:

  • The culpability the employer will face by putting its non-drug using workforce in jeopardy of injury
  • The risks/costs associated with assuming 100 percent liability for any and all workplace accidents caused by employee substance use

Marijuana is Not Safe for Work
The trend toward relaxing drug policies stems from a tendency to view some substances as more or less harmful than others. The reality is, any impairment of any kind is unsafe. That having been said, let's consider the issues surrounding employee marijuana use. While it makes for good political sound bites to say that marijuana is "safe," the harsh reality is that today's marijuana products are anywhere between 10 and 50 times more powerful than the same drug used in the 1970s-1980s. Any training that helps supervisors detect the signs and symptoms of employee drug use means they will spend a significant amount of time explaining how employees who use marijuana have difficulty learning and retaining new information, trouble with multi-divided attention tasks, struggle with time and distance tracking, can display hallucinatory behaviors, and could be at-risk for psychotic breaks. Does this sound "safe" for the workplace?

We are in an era where some employers choose to ignore substance use that could cause significant damage—at their own expense—simply because it is a political hot button. This simply is not a wise fiscal decision, nor is it a policy that respects the safety of the workforce.

While some states have changed laws pertaining to workplace drug testing, none of these current laws prevents an employer from having a workplace drug testing policy and enforcing a drug-free workplace. While changing marijuana laws happens to be what is currently trending, the parameters for safety must stand true and will outlast the momentary hoopla of popularizing this particular drug of choice.

Workplace drug testing should be used as a deterrent to drug use, with a positive focus on detecting when an individual needs help with their sobriety as well as reminders of the importance of staying safety-focused at all times. At the end of the day, employees may not realize the value in it, but drug testing is part of their individual rights to safety in the workplace, yet it is the employer's responsibility to protect and keep those rights fully intact.

References
1. U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics-Drug and Crime Data
2. National Institute on Drug Abuse
3. U.S. Department of Labor
4. U.S. Department of Transportation

This article originally appeared in the June 2019 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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