Workplace Drug Testing and Worker Drug Use

Cedric Fernando MD

May 8, 2023

Many employers claim that worker drug use imposes high costs on firms in the form of poor performance, safety risks and absenteeism. The evidence to date, however, suggests that these claims are exaggerated. Several studies have compared the presence of workplace testing programs to self-reported illicit drug and heavy alcohol use, using various waves of the National Household Survey on Drug Abuse.

Reasonable Suspicion Testing

Employers can use reasonable suspicion testing as part of a drug-free workplace program to mitigate safety risks and protect company assets. A trained supervisor may observe an employee’s behaviour or a physical/psychological sign that indicates drug impairment. This observation can be documented and followed by a rapid drug test.

This process is confidential, and supervisors must understand what they can and cannot request based on reasonable suspicion. This includes avoiding requiring tests based on hunches or “gut feelings.” Supervisors should complete vetted affordable suspicion training to learn to recognize the telltale signs of substance abuse.

Illicit drug and alcohol use is correlated with poor job performance and frequent turnover. Workers who report illegal drug use are twice as likely to skip work due to illness or injury compared to those who don’t use drugs. This negative correlation suggests that workplace drug testing deters some employees from abusing substances. However, this is not a universal finding.

For-Cause Testing

Some employers have policies that require workers to take a drug test when they have cause to believe their ability to perform work might be impaired. Such factors include but are not limited to, sudden or deteriorating work performance, an unusual odour, a history of drug abuse in the worker’s family, or the discovery of illegal substances or alcohol in the employee’s possession or near the workplace.

Random testing conducted unannounced at the employer’s discretion, is often a strong deterrent to drug use in the workplace. In addition, employees who test positive can be referred to an employee assistance program (EAP) or into treatment if they seek it. They may face discipline under the company’s disciplinary policy.

Post-Accident Testing

Drug testing can be a valuable tool in workplaces that experience work-related accidents. These tests can help employers get discounted workers’ compensation rates and deter substance abuse by employees that could result in more incidents.

In general, these tests are conducted at a laboratory or the workplace. Employees or job applicants must sign a waiver to consent to this test. A urinalysis is the most common method of testing. This tests the urine for five drugs — alcohol, amphetamines, cocaine, opiates and TCH. Alternatively, some companies offer a 10-panel test that includes the five plus barbiturates, benzodiazepine (Valium), methadone and propoxyphene.

Previous studies have reported a negative relationship between workplace drug testing programs and self-reported use of illicit drugs. These findings may be driven by omitted variables about firms or by selection and sorting effects. However, these results suggest that the deterrent effect of workplace drug testing is likely accurate.

Random Testing

Many employers use drug testing to discourage employees who abuse alcohol or experiment with illicit drugs. They may also want to deter workers from becoming too intoxicated while on the job, which could result in accidents and injuries.

Employers claim that worker drug abuse costs them money by lowering productivity, increasing employee absenteeism and contributing to workplace accidents. However, studies of these claims have generally found that the available evidence does not support them.

Many employees who believe their coworkers abuse illegal substances fear reporting their suspicions will cost them their jobs. This fear often prompts employees to withhold their concerns, which can have deadly consequences. In addition, some employees believe that random testing violates their privacy rights. They might argue that the test is unnecessarily intrusive or that the results of such tests do not accurately reflect impairment. Moreover, it is difficult for an employer to prove that an employee was intoxicated. At the same time, on the job because most drug tests show only that the individual ingested the substance at some point in the past.