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Since President Reagan’s mandate for employee drug testing Federal employees in 1988, many private sector employers followed suit and continue to follow suit by testing their employees for drug use, especially in safety-sensitive industries like construction and manufacturing, under the impression that drug testing helps create and maintain a safe workplace.1

However, more and more employers are beginning to recognize the limitations and detriments of relying on employee drug testing to enhance workplace safety, understanding that drug testing is not a preventative safety measure if it can be considered a safety measure at all.

Lewis Maltby, president of the National Workrights Institute, accurately describes the information that an employee drug test provides: “It just tells you that the employee ingested some amount of a particular drug at some undetermined point in time.”2

Employee drug testing is reactive in nature; a positive test reveals only a potential past condition and not necessarily a present one. 

The condition is potential for a number of reasons that can lead to a false positive test; for instance, certain medications and foods can “replicate the ‘signatures’ of banned substances”3 and the presence of a substance detected in body fluid is not necessarily an indicator of impairment while at work. When drug tests are taken in the aftermath of an accident, their purpose as a safety measure is moot. At that point, the test is a matter of course in investigating the accident’s causes, not reducing the victim’s safety risk.

Plus, changing attitudes and laws on cannabis, especially the recognition of its medicinal applications, have created a conundrum for employers and lawmakers alike who wish to respect employee privacy and medical needs while also keeping people safe at work. The chemical compounds in cannabis, called cannabinoids, which include THC and CBD, behave differently than other substances because they are stored in the brain or fat cells. Unlike alcohol, which is water-soluble and whose presence in the blood more accurately reflects current intoxication, cannabinoids, which are fat-soluble, can be present in body fluids long after they have been metabolized and long after any psychoactive effects have worn off. Thus, urine or blood testing for cannabis use is essentially pointless, as the strongest indicators of cannabis impairment are behavioral and cognitive. In addition, the results of any such body fluid test are not immediate, so impairment at the time of the test compared to the time results are available would not be the same. This issue has commonly prevented DUI-cannabis charges to lead to successful convictions.4

The Flaws of Random Employee and Pre-Employment Drug Testing

The purpose of employee drug testing, insofar as it is believed, is to prevent employees from undertaking safety-sensitive tasks while impaired. But in their assessment of the usefulness of random employee testing, the European Cockpit Association, for one example, concludes that it “may be perceived as politically expedient to demonstrate that ‘something’ is being done [but] has proven to be ineffective, costly and potentially prone to ‘false positives’—with negative repercussions for [employees] while giving the false impression of safety."3

Randomly testing employees for drugs is thought to dissuade employees from engaging in drug use to eliminate the possibility of them being intoxicated and thus impaired at work, so they don’t “get caught.” But any component of a safety system structured to catch wrongdoing as a method to prevent safety risk is indicative of an immature safety culture and a need for better safety leadership. In such cultures, recognition for safety performance is usually in the form of reprimand,5 and communication and rapport between front-line workers and management tends to be poor. In fact, researchers Seijts and O’Farrell assert “the implementation of drug testing programs can lead to resentment and a subsequent increase in grievance rates, deteriorating labor-management relations, decreased morale, and difficulties in attracting and hiring qualified candidates.”6

Maltby contends, “Most people who have accidents on the job are not drug users, and drugs have nothing to do with [most] accidents. Most accidents are caused by fatigue or alcohol."

Employee drug testing is not a screen for alcohol intoxication, and many employees are randomly tested for drugs but may drink regularly or to excess. Though they may not be acutely or visibly drunk at work, they may sometimes be hungover, and a random drug test doesn’t prevent them from undertaking safety-sensitive work. If they were impairment tested before starting their shifts, the effects their hangovers may have on their cognition, reaction time, and focus would cause a deviation from their baseline score, and supervisors could prevent them from posing safety risks. 

Drug testing these employees cannot identify any heightened safety risks they pose before they manifest. But pre-task or pre-shift impairment testing can do this, and thus allow intervention by supervisors when such circumstances arise.

Employers are also realizing that pre-employment drug screens don’t detect drug use on the job, nor do they dissuade it, and thus do not improve safety. Instead, job applicants merely take a break from using drugs so they are clean for the pre-employment drug screen. “Employers know that [drug testing] doesn’t mean anything. Anyone who smokes pot will just stop for a few days. It’s an empty ritual that nobody wants to be the first to give up,” Maltby says.1 Or the screen likely dissuades casual drug users, who may be valuable employees, from applying for the jobs in the first place.1,6 Lewis Maltby explains: "What really happens is that bright, young scientist whom you want to hire who smokes pot on Saturday was smart enough to drink beer [instead] for two weeks before the drug test because he wants to work for the company."2

The Viability of Employee Impairment Testing vs Employee Drug Testing in Today’s Technological and Cultural Setting

In the 1990s, early incarnations of impairment testing were unable to earn widespread adoption, but the technological and cultural landscape of the time likely prevented the technology from catching on. These manifestations of impairment tests required expensive and cumbersome proprietary equipment that many businesses would be unable or unwilling to spend on, especially given perceptions about drugs at the time. 

In the aftermath of Reagan’s order for Federal employees, businesses wanted to reflect a “clean” and “drug-free” image as well, and this desire persists today.1 Indeed, “some have asserted that workplace drug testing prevails in the United States—despite the absence of evidence of its usefulness for enhancing safety and productivity—for sociopolitical and symbolic reasons, rather than rational practical ones.”8

But the technology and culture of 2017 are different than when impairment testing was first conceived. Rather than needing expensive and cumbersome equipment, impairment tests now come in the form of easily-accessed software downloaded onto mobile devices like smartphones or tablet computers, which are ubiquitous and more easily affordable and obtainable. Plus, today’s understanding of cannabis is far improved. THC and CBD have been shown to have beneficial applications in treating ailments such as epilepsy, glaucoma, and more, and for reducing nausea and stimulating the appetites of cancer patients undergoing radiation treatment. As a result of this increased understanding, employers want alternatives that preclude penalizing valuable employees for their private lives, especially if that means using what was once an illicit substance for its practical medical applications. Employers are beginning to recognize that pre-employment drug testing may impede their hiring of the most qualified employees because they use cannabis outside of work,9 while alcohol and medications are not subject to the same scrutiny.

Cultural changes notwithstanding, some experts have been advocating in favor of employee impairment testing over employee drug testing for many years because drug testing is not a preventative measure, as described above. 

A 2010 report by the National Workrights Institute put it succinctly:

“Impairment testing is the practice of determining which workers in safety-sensitive positions put themselves and others at risk by directly measuring workers’ current fitness for duty. Urine drug testing, in contrast, attempts to determine which workers have used specific substances known to cause impairment in the relatively recent past.”10

Elaine Beck of Workforce magazine explains that “impairment testing focuses on workplace rather than leisure behavior.”7 In other words, workplace impairment testing works to prevent safety risks because it “focuses primarily on impairment, not on the cause of impairment. The objective of [impairment] testing is to assess fitness for work, not to detect drug use.”6 

Workforce impairment testing is non-invasive and protects employee privacy. It also protects employees who use medical marijuana from the flaws of drug testing, which can lead to false positives when they are unimpaired.

Employee impairment testing is far more valuable as a workplace safety tool than employee drug testing because it has the ability to screen out impairment regardless of the cause, including fatigue, which is a far more common factor in workplace accidents than drug use, and including medications and illicit drugs that can cause impairment, like drowsiness, but that are not included in typical employment drug screens, like over-the-counter medicines and “designer” or “club” drugs.6 

Contrary to the issues posed by drug testing programs, employee impairment testing has the potential to increase workplace wellness, improve communication between frontline workers and supervisors, and reduce problematic presenteeism. Presenteeism can cause impaired workers to stubbornly continue safety-sensitive work and can cause contagious workers to spread illness. Impairment testing increases productivity because both presenteeism and absenteeism are balanced and prevented from becoming extreme.

In short, workforce impairment testing, which today has become accessible, affordable, and more sophisticated, is an obvious solution to the many problems posed by workplace drug testing. Where employee drug testing is too narrow, invasive, expensive, and reactive, impairment testing is proactive, preventative, wide in scope, non-invasive, and can improve productivity and organizational culture.

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  1. Pinsker, J. (2015, June 6). Drug testing is basically pointless—here are 3 reasons why companies still do it. Business Insider. Retrieved from http://www.businessinsider.com/drug-testing-is-basically-pointless--here-are-3-reasons-why-companies-still-do-it-2015-6
  2. Katz, J. (2010, March). Rethinking drug testing: For years it’s been a no-brainer on the plant floor, but what do drug screens really tell us? Industry Week 259(3): 16–17.
  3. European Cockpit Association. (2016). Problematic substance abuse in aviation: Testing & peer support programmes. European Cockpit Association AISBL.
  4. How police test for marijuana DUI in California. (n.d.). Law Offices of Randy Collins. Retrieved from http://www.duiease.com/test-for-marijuana-california/
  5. Blair, E.H. & Spurlock, B.S. (2008, June). Leading measures of safety performance. [Conference paper]. American Society of Safety Engineers Professional Development Conference and Exhibition.
  6. Seijts, G.H. & O’Farrell, G. (2005). Urine collection jars versus video games: Perceptions of three stakeholder groups toward drug and impairment testing programs. Journal of Drug Issues 35(4): 885–916. doi:10.1177/002204260503500411
  7. Beck, E. (2001, February 1). Is the time right for impairment testing? Workforce 80(2): 69–71. Retrieved from http://www.workforce.com/articles/is-the-time-right-for-impairment-testing
  8. Comer, D.R. (2000). Employees’ attitudes toward fitness-for-duty testing. Journal of Managerial Issues 12(1): 61–75. Retrieved from http://www.pittstate.edu/econ/jmi.html
  9. Pratt, T. (2015, April 19). Marijuana legalization clashes with drug testing in the workplace. The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/2015/apr/19/marijuana-workplace-drug-testing-employers-employees-medical-recreational
  10. National Workrights Institute (2010). Impairment testing—Does it work? National Workrights Institute. Retrieved from http://workrights.us/?products=impairment-testing-does-it-work

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