Many believe drug testing programs are the only way to prevent occupationally impaired employees from posing a safety risk. This belief has been long justified because drug testing has been a staple of human resources practices for decades, and a lack of practical alternatives has cemented these beliefs.
Yet, drug testing has many limitations as an occupational impairment measurement tool. Although drug tests have a place and purpose in the safety-sensitive workplace, the following points illustrate why drug testing may be more effective (and less expensive) when supplemented by an easy-to-use impairment test.
Does a Drug Test Measure Occupational Impairment?
First, we must understand what drug tests are intended to measure or discover, because alertness and occupation impairment testing and drug testing provide different information. Drug tests take biological samples, often blood or urine, and then they test those samples for the presence of certain chemicals that match the signatures of whichever substances the drug test is designed to detect.
Consequently, drug tests cannot account for every possible intoxicating substance or occupational impairment condition. Conversely, there are many opportunities for false positives, whereby someone had ingested something innocent, but the drug test detects an illicit intoxicant. This could include things like over-the-counter cold medication, for example.
In the era of medical and legal marijuana, false positives create a new conundrum. Although many employers now realize that the presence of marijuana in body fluids does not necessarily indicate intoxication or impairment at the time the sample was taken, employers who have stuck with zero-tolerance policies have started having difficulty finding qualified candidates to fill open jobs. Additionally, employers in areas where cannabis is legal are becoming increasingly wary of discriminating against employees who are not impaired at work and have not broken the law.
Drug Tests Take Time Whereas Occupational Impairment Testing Takes Very Little
Second, traditional workplace drug screens do not provide instant feedback. Body fluids must be processed at a laboratory and then the results sent to the employer. This process can take at least a couple of days, if not a week or more. Traditional workplace drug screens are unable to inform employers who is intoxicated, much less impaired, in the moment the sample is taken.
Third, a drug test cannot tell employers who is dangerously fatigued, who had a few whiskies during their lunch break, who is emotionally distressed, nor other causes of occupational impairment that are unrelated to illicit drug use. But all these other causes can impair just the same and pose a safety risk.
Why is Alertness Testing a Better Option for Assessing Occupational Impairment?
Alertness testing, on the other hand, can provide a measure of fit-for-work on a daily basis, or even a few times in a shift if necessary. Because not all causes of occupational impairment are related to drug use, alertness testing provides employers greater vision with which to identify a potentially impaired employee and maintain a safe workplace.
Because occupational impairment can be caused by many factors, a conversation with the potentially impaired employee can allow supervisors to determine the best course of action to keep the workplace safe, in line with company policies. Due to this, companies using AlertMeter® alertness testing often reserve drug tests for cases of reasonable suspicion of intoxication, rather than give them to employees at random. Because random drug testing can prove to be very expensive, using alertness testing to effectively target drug tests can save a lot of money.
An AlertMeter® test lasts about one minute, and employees appreciate the instant feedback AlertMeter® provides. We've also seen how using AlertMeter® has led employees to be more aware of their own fatigue and alertness levels and to adopt healthier habits like staying hydrated and making sure to get adequate sleep before a shift.