Drug testing is more prevalent than it was just 10 years ago

It’s not a popular subject for most electrical contractors. In fact, it tends to make employers and their electricians downright uncomfortable. But drug and alcohol abuse, as well as the liability and loss of production that comes with it, is a problem that has affected nearly every electrical contractor. Today, the majority of contractors (some reluctantly) have already taken the first steps toward a drug testing program. The number of those involved is increasing yearly.

According to some industry watchers, the growing interest in drug testing is making those who have no drug policy unnecessarily vulnerable. At the same time, the controversy related to testing is showing every sign of dwindling. For example, 10 years ago, unions in most industries were diametrically opposed to drug testing. That has changed nationally. Local IBEW chapters often promote drug testing and have even created a task force with NECA to consider drug testing policies.

The incentive for testing is both economic and safety based. A study done by Quality Service Contractors found that 73 percent of drug users say they’re employed and 15.5 percent work in the construction industry. The construction industry has the highest rate of drug usage of any industry. In addition, 75 percent of cocaine users say they take drugs on the job, and 64 percent of them say it affects their performance.

“My advice is that it is critical to do it (start a drug testing program),” said Mel Hedin, a site safety manager based in New Mexico. “The use of alcohol and drugs is so pervasive, if you don’t do it, you’re inviting disaster.”

Many local chapters have developed drug testing programs chapterwide that can include dozens of companies. The Chicago and Cook County Chapter has one of the largest population drug testing programs in the United States. About 18,500 members there are involved in a mandatory random testing program modeled after one at the Portland, Ore., Chapter under the management of Timothy Gauthier.

In January 2000, after visiting the Portland chapter, Cook County launched its own program. “The impetus came from contractors,” said Chapter Manager Mark Nemshick. Those contractors were responding to customers who in growing numbers demanded a “drug-free” work site. Local IBEW and NECA members joined forces to prepare a program that includes testing of management and electricians. They advertised the new testing policy at least six months in advance and provided seminars and training for all those involved. “We offered an awful lot of education before we implemented this,” Nemshick commented.

The results have been mostly positive. While there were initial complaints as to violations of privacy, the complaints have stopped. The early positive drug test rates averaged about 7 percent, but they have dropped to between 1.5 and 2 percent, according to James Heffernan of Screensafe Inc., the company that administers the tests. Between 150 and 200 individuals are selected for testing each week and given 24 hours to report to a testing site that is generally a short distance from their work place. Contractors are required to pay the employee one hour’s pay when they report. Members provide urine samples and if the results come back diluted or at an unnatural temperature, the member must offer another test in front of a technician.

Those who are non-compliant or who fail the test must report to the Members Assistance Program where they can be directed to counseling or other programs. Neighboring chapters are also considering implementing a similar drug program as those who fail the test or refuse to take one in Cook County are likely to end up next door.

“It’s been extremely positive,” said Nemshick. He noted the chapter received special recognition from the Office of the President, as well as from John P. Walter, the director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy.

But simply being a participant in your local chapter program on paper is not enough, according to Hedin. He pointed out that each company has its own needs and concerns and must ensure that they are using the chapterwide plan to address those individual concerns. For one thing, every state has its own drug testing standards. So do large companies and customers. That means that contractors who operate in several states or work for different companies may find themselves operating under several different regulations at once.

“There can be conflicting policies with the customer,” Hedin said, “Then you can travel two states away and find yourself working under new state rules and new site rules.” Because of this, Hedin warned that every contractor must make him or herself aware of the compatibility of the company policy with their state and work-site policies.

Consider an example. An employee causes an accident on the work-site and tests positive for drugs or alcohol. If he is in another state, that state’s testing regulations may vary from the company’s own policies, leading to a hornet’s nest of potential legal problems.

Another concern is how the testing program is being used. “A lot of people have a testing policy but are they enforcing it consistently?” Hedin asked. “They may be setting themselves up for more legal trouble than if they never had a testing program at all.” Hedin added that contractors with a testing policy should create a consistent disciplinary action system and stick to it. “Document, document everything.”

“If you don’t have a drug testing program, you will become a safe harbor for those who are using. You will become one of the few employers in your area without drug testing,” said attorney Adele Abrams, CMSP and president of the law office of Adele L Abrams, PC, in Beltsville, Md. She represents employers and employees during labor litigation and is a consultant of safety issues in the workplace.

Abrams has worked in cases where intoxicated workers have driven trucks off high walls, broken bones and ended up in intensive care, or put other people there. “Those are all potential liability issues,” she said. They put an employer at risk of OSHA sanctions as well. In addition, she said, “If somebody is using drugs, they may be dealing drugs out of the work place.” Nobody wants that kind of potential legal trouble.

“At the same time,” Abrams said, “the employer has to take certain steps to ensure they are complying with the ADA (American with Disabilities Act).” Both recovering alcoholics and drug addicts are protected under the ADA from harassment at the workplace. They are, however, held to the same standards of performance.

Abrams also warns against over-reliance on “for cause” testing. “If a supervisor believes someone is high or drinking, that’s a dicey area,” she said. Most contractors, faced with such a report from a supervisor should have investigation into the charge, and try to find another witness. An employer can also send the employee home or ask him or her to test voluntarily. Employers need to avoid rushing to judgement. Employees who exhibit intoxicated behavior may have a medical condition that requires very different response.

In terms of the testing itself, “You have to hold everyone to the same standard,” said Abrams, who has known of at least one case where the company vice president tested positive. In addition, contractors, “should have an employee assistance program. If somebody comes to an employer and self-reports, there should not be any penalties.” Before any penalties, employers should seek help for the employee. “People put a sizeable investment in their employees,” Abrams pointed out. Policies need to be clear to all employees. It is mandatory in some states to provide each employee with a copy of the policy and have them sign off, acknowledging their understanding and consent to the screening/ testing protocol, whether pre- and post-employment or post-accident.

Determining what levels to test at is another question contractors have to consider. For example, traces of marijuana can appear in overly sensitive testing from secondhand smoke.

The San Diego Chapter has another broad, well-established testing program. Its drug-screening policy includes mandatory random testing for 20 percent of journeymen and 100 percent of apprentices each year. In addition, all union members submit to testing in the month of their birthday.

The results are typical; when the program began, they averaged 6 percent positive tests, now that average is down to 1.6 percent, according to San Diego County Chapter Manager Ron Cooper.

There are still many opponents to drug testing, as well as contractors who are reluctant to upset a productive pool of employees. This philosophy has kept many a contractor from implementing a program, or from effectively enforcing policies if they do exist.

Drug testing programs are not a guarantee of a drug free work force, either. There are dozens of Web sites that offer advice and products on how to beat urine tests, including www.urineluck.com, which boasts that it can “Detox your body, fast!” Companies sell products on the Internet such as drug-masking drinks, freeze-dried and synthetic urine, and temperature-controlled pouches for clean urine.

Staying ahead of the drug-testing cheats is a challenge for those running the testing programs. The Atlanta Chapter has organized a testing program with Drug Free Works, LLC, a company that provides workplace technical support and resources specific to drug testing issues. They began a drug testing program in 1994 and 22 out of the 32 members have achieved certification as a drug-free workplace in Georgia.

While the program initially called for testing to take place in area clinics, they have since provided their own testing sites for better control of testing results. “To address our concern for the accuracy and improve the service, I have opened a specific dedicated drug testing facility to serve employers in a way that clinics and doctors offices can’t and don’t,” said Jacqueline Derrick, president of Drug Free Works.

The company alerts contractors of any unusual circumstances such as diluted specimens, refusals, cold or hot submissions, late arrivals or adulterants as well as provides guidance on actions that can be taken to address the situations. The company also tracks the testing at the lab and the MRO to assure prompt accurate reporting.

Drug Free Works offers onsite drug testing randomly or periodically. Other options to help employers and employees understand and treat alcohol or drug addiction are Web sites such as the Guided Self-Change Clinic at Nova Southeastern University, www.nova.edu/~gsc. EC

SWEDBERG is a freelance writer based in western Washington. She can be reached at claire_swedberg@msn.com.