Drug testing is one way you can protect your workplace from the
negative effects of alcohol and other drug abuse. A drug testing
program can deter people from coming to work unfit for duty. It can
also discourage alcohol and other drug abusers from joining your
organization in the first place.
Some employers believe that a drug-free workplace program and
drug testing are one and the same; however, drug testing is only
one element of a program. Drug testing may be appropriate for some
organizations and not others. In some cases drug testing is
required; in others, it is optional. When drug testing is optional,
the decision about whether or not to test will depend on a variety
of factors such as the cost, appropriateness, and feasibility.
When considering a drug testing program, the first question to
ask is, "Am I required to drug test some or all of my employees?"
If not, then ask, "Are there other reasons I should consider drug
testing?" Below are some of the most frequent reasons employers
give for having a drug testing program:
- To comply with Federal regulations, e.g., the Department of
Transportation, Department of Defense, Nuclear Regulatory
Commission, and Department of Energy
- To comply with customer or contract requirements
- To comply with insurance carrier requirements
- To match other employer efforts, and to minimize the chance of
hiring employees who may be users or abusers
- To reinforce the company position on "no drug use"
- To identify current users and abusers and refer them for
- To establish grounds for discipline or firing
- To improve safety
- To convince "casual users" that the cost of using is too
- To deter "recreational" drug use that could lead to
- To reduce the costs of alcohol and other drug abuse in the
- To give recovering users another reason to stay sober (relapse
Below are examples of situations in which drug testing might be
appropriate or necessary:
- Pre-employment tests
Offering employment only after a negative drug test result.
Goal: To decrease the chance of hiring someone who is currently
using or abusing drugs.
- Pre-promotion tests
Testing employees prior to promotion within the
Goal: To decrease the chance of promoting someone who is currently
using or abusing drugs.
- Annual physical tests
Testing employees for alcohol and other drug use as part of their
Goal: To identify current users and abusers so they can be
referred for assistance and/or disciplinary action.
- Reasonable suspicion and for cause tests
Testing employees who show obvious signs of being unfit for duty
or have documented patterns of unsafe work behavior.
Goal: To protect the safety and well-being of the employee and
other coworkers and to provide the opportunity for rehabilitation
if the employee tests positive.
Testing a selected group of employees at random and
unpredictable times. Most commonly used in safety- and
Goal: To discourage use and abuse by making testing unpredictable,
and to identify current users and abusers so they can/ be referred
for assistance and/or disciplinary action if needed.
- Post-accident tests
Testing employees who are involved in an accident or unsafe
practice incident to help determine whether alcohol or other drug
use was a factor.
Goal: To protect the safety of the employees, and to identify and
refer to treatment those persons whose alcohol or other drug use
threatens the safety of the workplace.
- Treatment followup tests
Periodically testing employees who return to work after
participating in an alcohol or other drug rehabilitation
Goal: To encourage and ensure that employees remain drug-free
after they have completed the first stages of treatment.
An effective drug testing program needs a drug testing policy.
This may be part of the organization's drug-free workplace policy,
or it may be a separate document. It should be distributed to all
employees. The best protection against future legal challenges is
to write a policy that is as detailed and specific as possible.
Generally, employers test only for drugs that are most commonly
used and abused: cocaine, phencyclidine (PCP), opiates,
amphetamines, and cannabinoids (marijuana). Some employers also
test for alcohol.
Who will be tested and under what conditions
While the overall drug-free workplace policy should apply to
everyone in an organization, the drug testing policy may apply only
to some employees. Therefore, the testing policy should clearly
identify the employee positions included in the testing program.
The policy should also indicate under what circumstances employees
in each position will be tested. Employers who are required to drug
test by one or more Federal agencies should refer to the specific
regulations to determine the types of testing that are required
(i.e., random, post-accident, etc.). Employers whose employees are
members of a union or collective bargaining unit should know that
unless drug testing is required by law or regulation, it will
likely be a mandatory subject of bargaining.
The consequences of testing positive or refusing to
take a test
Before beginning a drug testing program, carefully consider how
you will handle a positive drug test result. The actions that will
be taken in response to a positive drug test should be clearly
detailed in the written policy. Although there are many options,
common responses include referring the employee for treatment,
disciplinary measures, or discharge. Examples: If an applicant
tests positive, she or he is usually denied employment. Some
employers will allow the applicant to reapply after a period of
time (e.g., three months). If an employee tests positive as part of
a post-accident or reasonable suspicion test, the first response
should be to remove that person from his or her position,
especially if the job is safety-related.
Several different methods of drug testing are available. Each
has its advantages and disadvantages.
- Urine test
The most common form of drug testing is to analyze a sample of
urine for traces of drugs. A positive test result only indicates
that a drug was used sometime in the recent past. It does not tell
whether or not the person was under the influence when giving the
sample. For detecting alcohol, a urine test is accurate but is not
used. This is because it correlates poorly with blood levels when
usual collection procedures are used.
- Blood test
A blood test measures the actual amount of alcohol or other drugs
in the blood at the time of the test. Unlike the urine test, the
results tell whether or not the person was under the influence at
the time the test was done.
- Saliva and hair tests
Researchers have begun studying the testing of hair and saliva to
detect alcohol and other drug use. Early results suggest that
testing saliva may be a valid testing method. The accuracy,
reliability, and interpretation of hair testing have not yet been
- Breath-alcohol test
A breath test is currently the most common method of testing for
alcohol. The results tell if the individual is under the influence
of alcohol at the time the breath sample is taken. Alcohol stays in
the body for a relatively short period of time. Therefore, unless a
person is under the influence at the time the specimen is
collected, a breath test for alcohol will not detect abuse off the
job (which can affect on-the-job performance).
An employee who tests positive may be given paid or unpaid leave
and referred to the employee assistance program (EAP) or other
substance abuse assessment service, if available. Some employers
automatically discharge anyone who tests positive. Usually,
refusing to provide a sample for testing or attempting to tamper
with, contaminate, or switch a sample is considered grounds for
discipline or discharge. It is important to have guidelines in
place that explain the organization's procedures for appeal should
an employee test positive. The appeal process will vary depending
on the nature of the work done, State laws, contractual
requirements, etc. It is essential, however, to provide written
guidelines for how such situations will be handled.
Normally, employers pay for drug tests. Sometimes employers
require the employee to pay for the test, and if the results are
negative, the employer reimburses the employee. If employees are
expected to pay, this should be stated in the written policy.
A clear written description of the procedures that will be used
for drug testing should be included either in the drug testing
policy or in a separate document. For organizations doing contract
work, the procedures may vary from one contract to the next and
would best be outlined in a separate document. Here are examples of
the type of information to include:
- Where employees will give their samples (name and phone number
of the collection site)
- Where the samples will be tested (name and phone number of the
- How results will be reported (will the laboratory contact the
individual, or will a designated person in the company tell the
Employers will also want to know these terms:
Chain of custody
A chain of custody form is used to document the handling and
storage of a urine specimen from the time it is collected until the
time of disposal. This form links the individual to the urine
sample. It is written proof of everything that happens to the
specimen while at the collection site and the laboratory.
The first test of a urine sample is called an initial test.
This test is fairly accurate and reliable but can also detect
over-the-counter medications. Therefore, if the initial test is
positive, a second test (by gas chromatography/mass spectrometry,
or GC/MS) should be done on the sample immediately. This
confirmatory test is highly accurate and will rule out any false
positives (mistakes made) on the first test.
DHHS Cut-off levels
A cut-off level is a value that is used to determine whether a
drug test is positive or negative. Many employers use the cut-off
levels established by the Department of Health and Human Services.
These cut-off levels have been proven accurate and reliable, as
well as defensible in a court of law.
Many States have drug testing laws that determine what an
employer can and cannot do. Resources are available to help you
find out if there are any State drug testing laws you must comply
with. An attorney with experience in labor and employment issues,
or a professional consultant specializing in workplace drug testing
can help ensure that the testing rules and procedures as outlined
in your policy are in compliance with State regulations. Avoid
legal problems by using procedures that are clear, fair,
consistent, and documented in a written policy. Because employment
decisions based on a test result can be contested, it will be to
your advantage to have a detailed policy and to understand the
protections that are available to you.