Even in a Pandemic, Workforce Drug Testing is Still Necessary

Even in a Pandemic, Workforce Drug Testing is Still Necessary

Recent drug testing data and patterns shows that workforce drug testing remains an absolute necessity.

In 1988, the Drug-Free Workplace Act was enacted requiring some federal contractors and all federal grantees to agree to provide drug-free workplaces as a precondition of receiving a contract or grant from a federal agency. The event is considered by to be a seminal moment in business and public safety.

Many people consider the current era of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has led to lock downs, restrictions on the workplace and a distressed global economy, to be another seminal moment. Experts who follow the economy are calling into question the necessity of business practices such as working in an office, traveling for business and traditional office hours. However, recent drug testing data and patterns shows that workforce drug testing remains an absolute necessity.

According to most recent Quest Diagnostics Drug Testing Index™, in full year 2019, the rate of workforce drug positivity hit a sixteen-year high in 2019. The positivity rates in the combined U.S. workforce increased in urine drug tests, climbing to the highest level since 2003 (4.5 percent) and more than 28 percent higher than the thirty-year low of 3.5 percent recorded between 2010 and 2012. (see graph). Clearly the overall positivity trend is disturbing and its growing.

In addition to overall positivity, there are other patterns supporting the need for workforce drug testing:

Positivity Rates for Methamphetamine Surged in the Midwest

Over the last five years, methamphetamine positivity in the general U.S. workforce testing increased nearly 12 percent (0.17 percent in 2015 versus 0.19 percent in 2019). Between 2019 and 2018, methamphetamine positivity inched up nearly 6 percent (0.18 percent in 2018 versus 0.19 percent in 2019) in general U.S. workforce tests.

Additionally, the increased positivity rates for methamphetamine in urine test results were bolstered by similar patterns in other specimen types. Oral fluid methamphetamine positivity, which also assesses recent use, was up 4.3 percent since 2018 and up 69 percent since 2015; while methamphetamine positivity from hair tests, which gauges a pattern of drug use over time, was up 20 percent since 2018 and 60 percent since 2015.

Over the past five years, methamphetamine positivity in the Midwest increased nearly 78 percent (0.09 percent in 2015 versus 0.16 percent in 2019). The Midwest was led by Illinois (0.03 percent in 2015 versus 0.10 percent in 2019), Indiana (0.14 percent in 2015 versus 0.29 percent in 2019), more than three-fold, and Michigan (0.014 percent in 2015 versus 0.05 in 2019) more than two-fold. These three states also exhibited year-over-year increases in three of the four intervals between 2015 and 2019.

Cocaine Positivity Increased in the Midwest and West

Cocaine positivity in the general U.S. workforce testing increased in the Midwest and West regions over the past five years. Cocaine positivity in the Midwest increased by 40 percent (0.20 percent in 2015 versus 0.28 percent in 2019) and in the West by 53 percent (0.15 percent in 2015 versus 0.23 percent in 2019). The Midwest was 20 percent less than the national rate in 2015 but 3.7 percent above the national rate in 2019, suggesting a surge in positivity in the region last year.

In the West, where cocaine positivity has been historically far lower, the cocaine positivity rate rose from 40 percent below the national rate in 2015 to 14.8 percent below in 2019. These increases in the West were primarily driven by increasing positivity in Colorado (0.19 percent in 2015 versus 0.30 percent in 2019), Nevada (0.13 percent in 2015 versus 0.22 percent in 2019), and Oregon (0.09 percent in 2015 versus 0.13 percent in 2019), which exhibited year-over-year increases in at least three of the four intervals between 2015 and 2019.

Marijuana is the Most Commonly Detected Drug

Marijuana continues to top the list of the most commonly detected illicit substances across all workforce categories (general U.S. workforce; federally mandated, safety-sensitive workforce; and combined U.S. workforce, which includes the prior two populations) and specimen types (urine, oral fluid, and hair).

In the general U.S. workforce, marijuana positivity increased nearly 11 percent in urine testing (2.8 percent in 2018 versus 3.1 percent in 2019) and 29 percent since 2015 (2.4 percent). In the Midwest, marijuana positivity outpaced national increases in positivity in 2018 and 2019. Marijuana positivity increased in the Midwest by nearly 14 percent (2.9 percent in 2018 versus 3.3 percent in 2019). The West region also outpaced national positivity and saw double digit increases, as compared to the previous year, in 2017 through 2019. Marijuana positivity increased in the West by 24 percent (3.3 percent in 2018 versus 4.1 percent in 2019) and 78 percent since 2015 (2.3 percent).

Workforce Positivity Increased Significantly in Multiple Industries

The Quest Diagnostics Drug Testing Index Industry Insights shows year-over-year increases in overall workplace drug positivity in 15 of the 17 sectors reported.

The Retail Trade industry had the highest overall positivity rate (4.7 percent in 2015, 5.1 percent in 2016, 5.3 percent in 2017, 5.4 percent in 2018 and 5.5 percent in 2019) across all five years of the analysis. The Accommodations and Food Service category had the highest workforce positivity for marijuana, at 4.8 percent, a relative increase of 65 percent over five years (2.9 percent in 2015 versus 4.8 percent in 2019).

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, rates of workplace drug positivity were trending in the wrong direction. The enormous strain caused by COVID-19 may prove to be an accelerant on the disturbing drug positivity trend. Health and safety professionals need to consider the impact of COVID-19 not only on workplace safety but also as a health concern for their employees for some time to come.

This article originally appeared in the October 2020 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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