You have identified behaviors in an employee or co-worker that led you to believe they have a substance abuse problem. Now what? Workplace substance abuse should never be taken lightly; your safety—as well as the safety of the other employees and the abuser—is at risk. Depending on the circumstances, it may be appropriate for the employer to perform drug testing.

Drug testing is such an important and sensitive subject that, in 2004, NECA and the IBEW began requiring all chapters and local unions to include such language in their agreements and to develop chapter-based substance-abuse testing programs. Signatory contractors must check with their chapters to see what it has negotiated with the local union because the law requires drug testing for current employees covered by a labor agreement to be bargained over with the union. Contractors cannot craft or impose their own testing program but must follow the structure laid out by the chapter and local union.

If testing is allowed, questions may arise about implementation. Some of the more common queries are included here.

Why do employers perform drug tests?
Safety is the simplest answer. Alcohol and drug abuse can create significant safety and health hazards on the job. Drug or alcohol use decreases an employee’s ability to think and reason clearly and slows reaction time. Drug tests also may be performed to deter employees from drug and alcohol abuse, to prevent the hiring of drug users, for early identification of personnel with alcohol and/or drug problems, to provide a safe workplace for all employees and to comply with the Federal Drug-Free Workplace Act.

How is drug testing conducted?
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) established standardized procedures that federal agencies must follow. Private employers have more flexibility in using drug testing to best fit the needs of their company. Although private employers don’t have to follow these guidelines, many opt to, so they will be on solid legal footing; many court decisions have supported following them.

SAMHSA’s guidelines require that a medical review officer evaluate tests. The most common method employers use is urinalysis, which can be performed at the workplace or a doctor’s office. The employee (or job applicant) provides the sample, and precautions are usually taken to prevent alteration, such as putting blue dye in the toilet, turning off the water supply and accompanying the person while the sample is given. Once obtained, the sample is sent to a certified lab for testing.

Who is allowed access to the results?
These results may be considered personal health information, so there may be restrictions on how and even if this information can be shared. This is why drug-tested employees typically sign a release at the time of the test in order for their employers to receive the results.

When are drug tests conducted?
Drug tests can be conducted at many times. The following are common:
• Pre-employment: Drug tests are -conducted at this time to prevent -hiring individuals who use illegal drugs. Applicants agree to the testing and understand that they will not be hired if they test positive.
• Periodic: Drug tests may be scheduled in advance, for every employee. Employers may request a drug test in the employees’ annual physicals.
• Random: Testing may be unannounced and unpredictable. Employees may be chosen at -random, a process often performed by a computer. Random testing allows all employees to have an equal chance of being chosen. Since it is unannounced, it is seen as a deterrent.
• Reasonable suspicion: Also know as “probable-cause” or “for-cause” testing, drug testing may be performed when a supervisor documents obvious signs of drug or alcohol use.
• Post-accident: Testing following an accident can help determine whether drugs and/or alcohol were a factor.

What kinds of drug tests are there?
Many bodily specimens can be tested to detect evidence of recent drug use. The two most common are urine and breath. Most drugs are processed and removed from the body in urine, so it is ideal for drug testing. Such testing detects and measures drug use within the previous few days. A breath test is used to find out how much alcohol is currently in the blood: the blood alcohol concentration (BAC). The BAC can be closely matched to impairment at the time of the test.

What drugs do these tests detect?
The typical test checks for the presence of these five illicit drug types: amphetamines (meth, speed, crank, Ecstasy); THC (marijuana, hash); cocaine (coke, crack); opiates (heroin, opium, codeine, morphine); and phencyclidine (PCP).

There are tests available to detect virtually every drug available. Private employers use these extended panels.

Do not feel bad about drug testing. The employee or applicant chose to show up having used illicit drugs, and you are trying to keep all employees safe. And perhaps, these tests may cause an employee with a substance abuse problem to take ownership of the problem and work to remove it from their lives.


KELLY is a safety and health specialist with Intec, a safety consulting, training and publishing firm that offers on-site assistance and produces manuals, training videos and software for contractors. She can be reached at 800.745.4818 and dkelly@intecweb.com. Joe O’Connor edited this article.