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Drug and behavioral testing should be part of broad safety regimen

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While implementing a drug-testing and monitoring program can provide a variety of benefits for employers, those firms looking to improve safety in the workplace need to keep in mind the strengths and limits of the practice.

Indeed, workplace drug testing has been common for decades, but quantifying drug testing's effect on safety is difficult.

“It's been difficult to accumulate hard facts about a causal relationship,” said Donna Smith, St. Petersburg, Florida-based program development and regulatory compliance officer for employment drug screening provider EDPM Inc.

Evren Esen, Washington-based director of survey programs for the Society for Human Resource Management, said her research indicates the most direct evidence for the efficacy of drug testing is improvements in areas such as absenteeism and worker productivity.

“Based on our results, we do see that it has had an impact,” Ms. Esen said. “For example, 19% of the HR professionals we surveyed say they saw an increase in worker productivity after the implementation of a drug-testing program.”

Scott Collins, Denver-based director of risk management and insurance at Digital First Media, said that while the safety risk presented by inebriated workers is self-evident, companies need to carefully craft a drug-testing regimen to make sure it fits the particular needs of their businesses.

“From a drug use standpoint, it really depends on the industry you are in,” Mr. Collins said. “So an office worker using drugs may not be as productive, but they are probably not a huge safety risk, whereas an impaired crane operator is a whole other ball of wax.”

In addition to considering the type of work employees perform, a risk manager also should perform careful cost/benefit analysis of a drug-testing program, Mr. Collins said. For example, while implementing a program may save a company on workers compensation premiums, those savings could be more than offset by costs related to the program.

“There will be costs for testing, implementation and maintenance, not to mention the cost of turnover and of hiring,” he said.

Keith Rosenblum, Kansas City, Missouri-based senior strategist for workers compensation for Lockton Cos. L.L.C., said that in addition to drug testing, employers should consider less costly methods such as personality-based, integrity testing for employees, noting that many applicants completing integrity tests will self-disclose undesirable behaviors such as on-the-job illicit drug use.

“Sometimes some interventions are so simple that people are afraid to use them,” Mr. Rosenblum said. “You have to think as an employer what you are trying to achieve.”

Elsewhere, advances in drug-testing technology have enabled companies to become more tactical in how they approach drug testing, Ms. Smith said. Where an energy company may have once tested a large group of employees and waited days for the results to come back from a lab, increasingly predictive oral tests can yield real-time results.

“One area where accuracy has improved is the sensitivity of reagents used on instant tests of urine or oral fluids,” she said. “These tests are especially helpful for quickly screening workers on their way to a safety critical job such as an oil platform or a construction site.”

Dee Mason, Columbus, Ohio-based founder and CEO of drug-free workplace program adviser Working Partners Systems Inc., said the need for drug testing is more acute than ever to maintain a safe workplace given the well-documented surge in prescription drug and opioid abuse in recent years.

“We are really having a problem with prescription drugs,” Ms. Mason said. “There are nearly double the number of people abusing prescription drugs as (are abusing) cocaine, heroin, hallucinogens and inhalants combined.”

Nonetheless, companies looking to expand the panel of substances they test employees for need to exercise caution, said Josephine Elizabeth Kenney, senior vice president of compliance/senior compliance counsel at Atlanta, Georgia-based employee background screening and analytics firm First Advantage. The Drug Testing Advisory Board of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration is now considering the inclusion of Schedule II synthetic opioids such as oxycodone and hydrocodone to the influential mandatory guidelines for the Federal Workplace Drug testing Programs.

“The problem with expanding on your own right now is that there are no acknowledged best practices for dealing with drugs beyond traditional opiates such as opium,” Ms. Kenney said. “DTAB is looking at how to manage synthetics, and until it decides, you will have medical review issues.”

However, companies that focus too narrowly on drug testing risk missing out on the bigger picture of workplace safety.

“Drug testing in and of itself is just a step in a process,” Ms. Mason said. “You really need to have education and awareness. If workers understand that the testing is part of workplace safety program you won't have as much of a backlash.”

Likewise, Ms. Kenney said a robust employee assistance program aimed at helping employees with addiction issues was essential.

“A successful workplace prevention program begins and ends with a good EAP program,” she said.