To Test or Not to Test?

To Test or Not to Test?

Institutions should consider expanding their drug-testing practices. Here's why.

In preparation for this month's column on best practices for employee and pre-employment drug testing, human resource departments at more than 25 colleges and universities nationwide were contacted. Many responded, stating that their school did not drug test employees beyond the U.S. Department of Transportation mandate. The Omnibus Transportation Employee Testing Act of 1991 requires all employers to drug test transportation workers who perform safety-sensitive functions, such as employees whose jobs require them to have a commercial driver's license or operate motor vehicles that weigh more than 26,001 pounds, transport hazardous materials, or carry 15 passengers or more.

Yet, the same scenario doesn't hold true in the private sector. A March survey conducted by the Society for Human Resource Management found that 84 percent of the 454 employers contacted said they conduct pre-employment drug testing; 39 percent do random drug testing.

So why the discrepancy? Are college campuses considered safer environments than corporate campuses? Or, is drug testing just considered an invasion of privacy?

Some of these schools were asked the same questions, but none really offered any answers. As vice president of Drug Testing Services at Aurico Reports, Wayne Hovland runs into the same problem every time his drug screening company contacts institutions of higher education.

IHE "bury their heads in the sand and don't even entertain the thought of a faculty drug-testing program." -Wayne Hovland, Aurico Reports.

"They bury their heads in the sand and don't even entertain the thought of a faculty drug testing program," says Hovland. "When I bring it up, they will say something like, 'We are not going to talk about that,' or 'We are not interested in doing that.' I have heard it said that faculty would not put up with it."

There are plenty of reasons to drug test. During the last decade, federal and nonprofit organizations have published hundreds of sobering facts about the impact of drugs and alcohol on the job.

According to Drug Free Pennsylvania, the annual cost of substance abuse in the workplace for U.S. employers is $140 billion due to lost productivity, absenteeism, accidents, medical claims, and theft. Pennsylvania workers who are problem drinkers are absent from work four to eight times more often than those without a problem, while drug users miss an average of five days per month. Likewise, 38 percent to 50 percent of all workers' compensation claims relate to substance abuse. Drug users are also three times more likely to use medical benefits compared to other employees, and 80 percent steal from their employer to support their habit.

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration revealed more startling statistics with its 2004 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (http://oas.samhsa.gov/trends.htm): Eight million full-time workers, age 26 or older, reported being heavy alcohol users. Another 9.5 million full-time employees, age 18 or older, reported using illicit drugs in the past month. Alcohol is also a contributing factor in 39 percent of all work-related traffic crashes, states the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

To be fair, let's examine the other side.

If drug testing is conducted in a vacuum, it can be perceived as oppressive and a way to weed out undesirables, leading to a poor work environment, says Elena Carr, director of Working Partners for an Alcohol- and Drug-Free Workplace, a U.S. Department of Labor program. In such situations, she says, drug testing is considered more of a policing function rather than a program that focuses on employee safety or health.

Carr also points to many organizations that function well with a zero-tolerance drug policy that's supported by a strong employee assistance program (EAP).

"A policy can stand alone, but I'm not sure it replaces drug testing as a tool of detection and deterrence," says Carr, adding that the five components of a drug-free workplace are a policy, supervisory training, employee education, drug testing, and an EAP. "But it does set the expectation."

No one disputes the danger of alcohol or drugs in the workplace. How would officials at a school that decides to expand drug testing to other employee populations in the future proceed?

There are currently four different types of drug tests, explains Jeffrey Ellins, president at Datco Services Corp., a third-party administrator for drug and alcohol testing and compliance. He says the most stable is urine, because there are established or accepted industry standards and it's very difficult for people to cheat the sensitive testing technology.

An alternative is blood testing, which Ellins says is not reliable because the federal government has not yet set any standards. For example, someone's blood test may turn up positive for amphetamines. That could mean several different things. The employee could be abusing illegal drugs or under a doctor's care, taking a prescription drug. In the latter case, there may only be a trace amount in the person's system. But since there is no standard, no one really knows what is an acceptable amount.

Hair follicle testing is yet another method. It reveals a person's 90-day history with drugs/alcohol, so some employers prefer to use it as a prehiring tool. But it can't test for current usage.

The last test-on oral fluids or saliva samples-was introduced three years ago. Ellins says this test is becoming more stable and doesn't require a sealed bathroom like with urine testing. A person's mouth is simply swabbed and the results are instant. However, there is a downside: The test is subjective. It is conducted with a reagent that chemically reacts with the cotton swab. If it's positive, there's no reaction. If negative, a line will appear. What if the line is faint? It then becomes a judgment call by the test administrator.

For those using instant kits, Ellins recommends urine kits, partially because of their expense-less than $10. Oral fluid kits are available for under $20. Blood and hair tests are the most expensive, since they must be conducted by a lab, and can run from $35 on up per employee.

Any drug-testing program, he adds, must include two essentials-a policy that explains the consequences of a positive test and a training component that communicates information to employees about the signs and symptoms of drug or alcohol misuse. His company publishes a handbook that explains the U.S. Drug-Free Workplace Act of 1988, the physical effects of drug and alcohol abuse, and a list of resources where people can seek help.

When the DOT began testing, Ellins says the positive rate was 10 percent. That number has dropped and stabilized at four percent. "Four percent sounds small, but it could be over hundreds of thousands of employees," he says.

Ball State University (Ind.) drug tests approximately 83 of its 3,500 employees due to the DOT mandate. In the last 10 years, only a handful have tested positive, says Marta Stephens, coordinator of the school's work/life programs.

"Initially, we jumped right on the [DOT testing]," she says. "The workers know we're going to be right on top of this and not let anything slip. The supervisors are really great about making sure licenses and physicals are updated. It takes a lot of people to make this work."

While the DOT decreased the number of employees who had to be tested for alcohol from 25 percent to 10 percent, Stephens says the school stuck with 25 percent as a safety precaution. Still, BSU has no plans to expand its drug-testing program. "There's no need to extend this to new hires in general," she says. "There just doesn't seem to be any reason to."

Besides understanding the DOT's drug-testing rules and procedures, one of the most difficult challenges for Pepperdine University (Calif.) was finding a reliable vendor for its testing process, says Chip Moore, chief HR officer. Nearly 10 years ago, the school began sending a sample of its workforce-about 10 employees out of its 1,400-member workforce-to an external lab for drug testing annually.

Moore's staff scoured the local market for a vendor before finding one that not only understood the federal guidelines and was precise with testing, but also who would manage the entire process, from training employees to random testing.

What's more, he says, the vendor had to show respect for employees. That can sometimes be overlooked by schools.

So far, drug testing has been a continuous learning process, Moore notes. But he does believe there is a good argument to be made for testing more employees.

"The basic premise is you want to protect your people from either themselves or the impact of drugs," says Moore. "We will probably in the long run increase the number of people involved in that. We've just chosen not to do so at this point. We haven't gotten to the discussion part."

So what about your school? Are you ready for that discussion?

Carol Patton, a Las Vegas-based freelance writer,specializes in covering human resources issues.


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