Later, his name comes up for a random drug test. Another negative finding. Then he injures himself while unloading his van. He is tested for drug use once more. Negative results, again.
If positive findings are rare--some say that less than 5 percent of tests prove positive--are they worth doing, given the (slight) expense, the inconvenience and the invasion of privacy?
The highest risk of drug abuse occurs among 18 to 20-year-old workers, 22 percent of whom self-report that they have taken an illicit drug within the past month. Add to that binge alcohol drinkers. One quarter of high-school seniors have consumed at least five drinks at an occasion within the past two weeks.
So, by all means test unless you can't bear to deal with the findings among your workforce. One employer noted to me that maybe half of his workers might light up positive if he tested.
Widespread drug testing of workers began some 20 years ago. In 1988, the federal government began to require federal contractors to test their workers. The Department of Transportation began requiring drug testing of transportation workers in 1991. By the mid-1990s, drug testing was almost universal among Fortune 500 companies.
Done carefully, drug tests yield very few false positives.
There are few reliable studies of their practical impact. Cornell University polled 71 construction contractors in 1999. The study reported a 51 percent reduction, on average, in injury rates within two years of a contractor having introducing a drug-testing program.
A study published two years ago by Stanford Law School researchers suggests that a drop in injuries due to drug testing may in part be due to a drop in reports of injuries, not in injuries themselves. Their study of a Fortune 100 retail chain found that first aid cases declined by 21 percent, medical-only cases by 10 percent, and indemnity cases by 7 percent, after it introduced a post-accident drug testing program.
Christine Clearwater, president of Drug-Free Solutions Group, asserts that every company which introduces a post-accident drug testing program will see benefits.
And, employers should be ordering tests that check for more than the traditional drugs, such as marijuana, cocaine and heroin. Employers should also test for alcohol abuse, she said.
Drug testing after a work injury helps in every jurisdiction. Courts are ever more inclined to take positive findings into account. Clearwater notes that some jurisdictions restrict post-accident tests to jobs that the employer has already listed as safety-sensitive. These should include any job involving driving on company time.
Employers have to train employees to report every event that meets a clear definition of an accident.
Drug and alcohol persist as big risk factors for not only accidents but lower productivity. Close to 9 percent of workers are currently using illicit drugs and close to 9 percent are currently heavy drinkers, according to self-reported data from 2006.
That said, where's the balance between corporate risk management and personal privacy? If the employee is willing to incur the risk of injury, he or she is obliged to comply with safety rules. But I am mainly motivated by having witnessed the way behavioral problems take no prisoners, ruining lives at work and at home.
No step that is legal and ethical should be forgone to correct a worker's self-destructive behavior. God knows how easy it is to look the other way.
PETER ROUSMANIERE is an expert on the workers' compensation industry. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
April 1, 2010
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