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Random drug testing can help reduce accidents for construction companies

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SAN DIEGO—While most construction companies require drug tests before hiring or after an accident, random drug tests need to be conducted in order to truly address the problem and create a safer work environment, experts say.

Furthermore, employers also should consider onsite oral fluid tests to detect drug abuse rather than the more common urine analysis method, which can be easily altered, they say.

Corporate America has a $140 billion per year drug problem, said Joseph J. Poliafico, director of risk management and human resources for La Plata, Md.-based Facchina Group of Cos. L.L.C., a privately held parent of several large construction companies.

Drug abuse in the workplace not only results in more on-the-job accidents, but also in more workers compensation claims, greater employee turnover and absenteeism, more health care utilization, more employee theft and greater workplace violence, Mr. Poliafico said.

And the problem is prevalent in the construction industry, he said, citing a 2004 survey from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration in which 20% to 25% of construction employees reported drug abuse within the prior year.

Most of the workplace drug testing in the United States is done pre-employment or post-accident, Mr. Poliafico said. "Random drug testing is key. It flat out validates your entire drug program," he said during a session at the 26th annual Construction Risk Conference, held Oct. 9-12 in San Diego and sponsored by the International Risk Management Institute Inc.

"When I'm putting a guy on a front endloader or I'm putting a guy on a piece of equipment or in a vehicle driving down the road with my company's name on the side, I want to make sure I'm doing my due diligence and am protecting my assets, the company's assets and the public," Mr. Poliafico said.

"If you want to address the drug problem, you have to go all the way and we're not going far enough," he said. "We need random tests."

Steve Turko, a drug test consultant for Avitar Technologies Inc. in Canton, Mass., who also spoke during the session, noted that statistics show that pre-employment testing detects no more than 4.5% of those workers who abuse drugs out of the 8% to 10% of U.S. workers who do so, according to estimates from the Department of Health and Human Services.

"Your drug testing program shouldn't be about catching people, busting them and getting rid of them; it should be about deterrence, creating a safe work environment and helping those who need help," Mr. Turko said. "And really, the best deterrent is through random testing."

Mr. Poliafico said that random testing current employees is not illegal, but employers need to make sure they have a written drug policy in place saying they do so. And while most states support drug testing, there are certain states that may allow random tests only for safety sensitive positions.

Overall, risk managers "can't be afraid" of testing workers and firing them for using drugs, Mr. Poliafico said. "We have to be the champions in our organizations in doing that, and we can't waiver on this issue."

One of the biggest problems in drug programs today is the "exceptions to the rule," he said. Companies have a hard time letting go of a superintendent or a 25-year veteran who tests positive.

"You can't have a zero (tolerance) policy for drugs and then go make exceptions," he said. "That's when you get a knock on the door that you're being sued."

Companies can, though, put in their written drug policies that they will offer rehabilitation to those superintendents or company veterans that test positive, "but you have to write it down."

In addition to random drug tests, Messrs. Poliafico and Turko also advocate onsite oral fluid tests, which swabs the inside of the mouth to detect the presence of marijuana, opiates, cocaine and methamphetamine.

Most employers today are most comfortable using an onsite or laboratory-tested urine analysis to detect drug use, but one of the issues with urine analysis is that there are a number of "urine adulterants" available to workers that can alter their screening, they said.

Exemplifying the issue, Mr. Turko said that typing in the words "beat a drug test" on the Internet search engine Google will produce millions of hits.

Not only do onsite oral drug screens reduce the likelihood of adulteration, they also take about five minutes, allowing rapid hiring of new employees while minimizing time away from work for current employees, Mr. Poliafico said.

At the same time, it's much cheaper than a urine analysis, he said. "We reduced our drug testing costs by 60%" by implementing onsite oral fluid testing, he said, noting that each oral fluid test costs about $15 to $20 vs. $65 to $75 for a urine test.

While most states have no restrictions to onsite oral fluid tests, employers should check with individual states as some require that positive screens be confirmed in a laboratory and others permit them for pre-employment purposes only, according to information handed out at the session.