The unnamed company sought to eliminate what it considered a barrier to hiring. While the strategy attracted more job applicants, the company got more than it bargained for.
"The wheels started falling off their safety program in terms of what kinds of problems and issues they began to have," said Joel Sherman, a director of safety and workers' compensation for a medium-sized California company. Sherman says the company consulted him and that he warned against the proposed strategy; however, his advice was ignored. "The end result was pretty amazing in terms of what it caused and created."
The company now refers to the 14-month time period as the "battle of the bulge." In a little over a year's time, the company's injury incident rate had more than doubled, along with the number of indemnity claims. Three years later, there are still more than 150 open claims.
"This was an unintentional experiment," Sherman said."Nobody had any idea it would be this bad."
Precipitating the decision to remove drug testing from the hiring process was the company's need to add 1,200 people to its 3,600 employee workforce in a 90-day period. Initially, the company received only about 50 job applications per week.
The top management of the company decided to explore what was preventing people from putting in applications and applying for these jobs, Sherman said. "One barrier they identified was pre-placement drug screens."
Since the jobs being filled were essentially for line employees working on a conveyor, the company surmised that off-hour drug use would not have a significant impact. Thus, they eliminated drug testing.
"The argument was that it really wouldn't have an impact on their being able to perform the job," Sherman said. "It wouldn't increase safety issues."
Or so they thought. From June 2008 to September 2009, the company did without drug testing job applicants.
"There was a bit of an unintentional case study on what happens when pre-placement drug screening is eliminated from the hiring program," Sherman said. "First of all, instead of getting 50 to 75 job applicants a week, within three weeks they received 500 applications a week, sometimes as many as 750."
That part was a success since the motivation for eliminating drug screening was the hiring process rather than to save costs. But the company did not expect the move to drive up its workers' comp costs so significantly.
"At this point, the number is somewhere north of $2 million, but that is a rough estimate," Sherman said. "There are still 158 claims open. Considering the average claim cost in California, it may be significantly north of $2 million."
What happened. Instead of an average 177 recordable injuries per year, based on a three-year average, the number more than doubled -- to 394 from June 2008 to mid-2009. That time period also saw the number of indemnity claims jump from 120 to 242.
The changes left company officials scratching their heads. The increased numbers were not associated with an increase in drug-related workplace injuries and illnesses.
"The accidents being caused were not ones where it pointed to somebody being under the influence," Sherman said. "I believe there were two instances of injuries where an individual had tested positive [after the injury]. They were not finding people actively under the influence, they were simply finding [that] people inclined to use drugs recreationally simply have more injuries."
Sherman cited a 2009 study by Rand that might offer an answer.
"They found the same thing; people under the influence when they are injured are few and far between," Sherman said. "At the same time, there is obviously evidence that people who use drugs have a higher rate of injuries than people who don't."
While the Rand researchers did not determine the reason, they speculated it could be that taking illegal drugs is a risk-taking behavior.
"What drug screens seem to do is identify people more inclined to take risks while on the job," Sherman said. "That has not been studied in detail yet, but I think based on what you see with this company you can go, 'hey, wait a minute.'"
The company reinstituted and even expanded drug screening in the fall of 2009. Seven months later, they saw a decline in the numbers that had been climbing.
"There was a 14.6 percent reduction in injuries and an 8.9 percent reduction in total incidents," Sherman said. The reduction has continued through 2011 and 2012.
Among the lessons learned was that the failure to screen job applicants for drugs serves as an invitation for riskier people to apply for jobs.
"During that period of time when the drug screening was not being done, the company processed over 10,000 job applications," Sherman said. "They didn't advertise that drug testing was not being done. People just knew -- within three weeks."
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January 3, 2013
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