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Coming Clean

Coming Clean

Implementing an oral or urine drug testing program helps contractors combat the construction industry's bad rap for employing workers with substance abuse problems

As little as 10 years ago, implementing a substance abuse testing program was difficult. Employees challenged owners that it wasn't constitutional. Similarly, many owners felt it would send the wrong message to employees — a message that they just weren't trustworthy. But it seems times are changing. In 1983, less than 1% of employees nationwide were subject to drug screening. Today, approximately 49% of full-time workers must undergo some form of workplace drug testing, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration in Rockville, Md.

That's good news for electrical contractors — when you consider the fact that the construction industry currently has a higher rate of documented illicit drug use than any other specific industry tracked by the Department of Labor (DOL), as shown in Fig. 1 below.

“We think we know about the people in our current employment, but we don't know the problems of new hires,” said Dennis Thomas, president of Thomco Electric in Beltsville, Md., and national president of the Independent Electrical Contractor's Association (IEC) at a recent industry trade show. “Then again, do we really know our current employees' problems?”

When you look at national statistics for substance abusers, the answer to this question is usually “no.”

Statistical snapshot on substance abuse. In the United States today, 73% of drug users are employed, 33% of employees know of the illegal sale of drugs in their workplace, and 20% of young workers admit to using marijuana on the job, according to a recent DOL report released in March 2006. In the same study, the National Cocaine Helpline, Summit, N.J., revealed that 75% of addicts use drugs on the job, 64% admitted that drugs adversely affected their job performance, 44% sold drugs to other employees, and 18% had stolen from co-workers to support their drug habit.

Another alarming statistic from the DOL's “2004 National Survey on Drug Use and Health” reveals that the largest group of substance abusers comes from the 18- to 25-year-old age bracket. This should be of particular concern to electrical contracting firms, as the construction industry draws heavily from the pool of workers 18 to 34 years old (Fig. 2 below).

Small businesses (classified as those with fewer than 250 employees) — another category where the majority of electrical contracting firms fits — also seem to be more at risk than larger businesses. In fact, an article in The National Report on Substance Abuse from the early 1990s and a current Web posting by the DOL mentioned that small businesses that don't have a drug testing program risk becoming a haven for drug and alcohol abusers. This relates to the fact that 91% of large American businesses have substance abuse policies while only 5% to 10% of small- to medium-sized businesses have implemented similar programs. Ironically, about 75% of employed Americans work for small- to medium-sized businesses.

The cost of abuse. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, part of the National Institutes of Health, a component of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services based in Rockville, Md., drug users are three times more likely to be late to work and 3.6 times more likely to be involved in a workplace accident. On the same note, the DOL notes that the costs associated with substance abuse negatively affect a balance sheet in the following ways.

  • 38% to 50% of all workers' comp claims are related to substance abuse in the workplace.

  • Substance abusers file three to five times as many workers' comp claims than those not under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

  • 300% higher medical costs are due to substance abusers.

  • A substance abuser is 2.5 times more likely to be absent eight or more days a year than his or her “clean” counterpart.

  • Substance abusers are one-third less productive at work than non-substance abusers.

Even more specifically related to the electrical contracting profession is a study conducted by J. Berber from Cornell University in 1999. After collecting data from 71 out of 405 voluntary contracting companies, he found that the average contractor that conducts drug tests experiences a 51% reduction in its injury rate within two years of implementing such a program — compared to the 14% decline in those that did not during the same time period. As a result of fewer job site accidents and injuries, the average contractor in the study that tested for drugs experienced an 11.41% reduction in its workers' comp experience-rating modification factor.

“Employers who want greater control of their company and promote a safe working environment are the ones who embrace substance abuse testing,” says Doug Megill, president of McLean Insurance in Potomac Falls, Va. “Another reason why an electrical contractor should test for drugs is many states offer discounts on workers' comp premiums if the company has a substance abuse program. The workers' compensation modification factor will also be positively impacted due to claims being denied when it can be determined that an employee was under the influence of drugs or alcohol.”

When you consider how severely just one drug-related lawsuit could affect a company's financial health, even contractors who have placed the priority of drug testing on the back burner should take a second look at starting a program, which can be administered in various ways depending on the employer's strategy.

Types of testing programs. In order to understand drug testing, it's important to first step back and explore the different types of substance abuse programs, including pre-employment, post-accident, reasonable suspicion, and random.

In general, pre-employment, post-accident, and reasonable suspicion approaches serve to warn employees and potential employees that the company is drug-free by detecting drug use. For example, if a company only performs pre-employment drug testing, it's still likely to be infected with drug users. This is because users typically refrain from taking drugs during a job search so they can pass the test. Some also purchase adulterants from one of more than 200,000 Web sites that sell products, such as diluting drinks, masking agents, freeze-dried urine, synthetic urine, human urine, and temperature-controlled pouches to sway results.

After accepting a new job, such employees often start using drugs again. Issues also arise with post-accident testing, such as when companies forget to request a test after an accident or management can't determine when an accident is serious enough to require a test. Sometimes such indecision leads to no test at all.

Random tests, on the other hand, deter drug use. Obviously, the advantage here is the element of surprise as to who is selected as well as how often the tests are administered. Typical random programs test 10% of employees once a month.

After deciding what type of program to implement, your next choice is deciding between the two most popular methods of testing — urine and saliva.

Urine vs. saliva testing. Although urine testing has been around longer, and enjoys the status of being Department of Transportation (DOT) approved, saliva testing is gaining in acceptance and popularity. Let's take a look at the differences between these two approaches.

Urine testing. Contractors with Commercial Drivers License (CDL) requirements have no choice but to use urine tests. There are two ways a contractor can implement a urine program — instant tests and lab-based tests.

With both types of urine tests, the sample must be given in a “controlled environment” — that is no running water in the bathroom, no cabinets that may contain adulterants such as Clorox, the toilet bowl water must contain a bluing agent, the collector must apply a temperature strip to the specimen to make sure it matches body temperature, the collector must check the specimen for unusual color and odor, and the donor is instructed to leave coats, purses, and briefcases outside the cubicle where they provide the specimen.

With instant tests, the employer collects the sample in a cup provided by one of several manufacturers. After collecting the specimen, the employer has the option of testing it for adulterants. This usually involves the use of a dipstick inserted in the urine sample.

For lab-based tests, the contractor has two options for collecting a specimen: (1) hire a service that comes to the office or goes to the job sites with a portable facility such as an RV equipped with a “controlled environment” bathroom, or (2) send the employees to a clinic. While the portable service saves downtime from the job for random testing, it is typically up to four times as expensive as using a clinic — costing anywhere between $75 and $120 per test. Although less expensive, the disadvantage of using a clinic, featuring tests that typically cost between $30 and $60 per test, is downtime of the employee. On average, the employee must take out two to three hours from work by the time he or she drives to the facility, waits in line, gives the sample, and returns to the job site. To be safe, some companies also believe a supervisor should accompany the employee to the clinic to ensure he or she doesn't attempt to tamper with the test, which isn't always practical.

Urine tests, if not tampered with, provide an accurate way to test for drugs. While urine tests can detect many legal and illegal drugs, the most common illegal drugs tested are the National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA) 5 or THC, cocaine, opiates, amphetamines, and PCP.

An advantage of urine testing vs. saliva testing is that it can “look back” further into a subject's history on marijuana usage. Another advantage of lab-based urine tests is the fact that many companies prefer to send employees to a clinic or facility rather than self-administering instant urine tests. That is, they prefer sub-contracting or outsourcing the drug program and testing altogether.

Saliva testing. Saliva-based oral drug testing has been on the market approximately 10 years. Testing at several federally certified, independent labs have confirmed that lab-based, FDA-cleared oral fluid tests have shown comparable and superior ability to detect drug usage when compared to laboratory-based urine tests. For employers most interested in pinpointing heavy users, such as the daily user or the person who uses drugs before coming to work or during lunch and/or breaks, oral fluid testing, both instant and lab-based, can be effective.

Basically, a company usually trains the HR manager or supervisor to perform the saliva test. Companies that manufacture the tests send training CDs with the first order. There is a test on the training CD for the drug program administrator. When the administrator passes the test with a score of 80 or greater, a certificate is printed. It is as simple as handing someone a toothbrush, asking the employee to keep it in their mouth for 3 minutes. Then (the donor) puts it in a “test tube”, seals it, and places it in an overnight bag

In general, the benefits associated with instant and lab-based saliva testing include:

  • Although a few adulterants for saliva tests have been advertised on various Web sites, they've proven to be false.

  • Shows immediate marijuana use whereas it takes 6-9 hours for marijuana to get into urine.

  • Donor dignity is preserved, as no one handles a container of urine.

  • No one touches the test subject's saliva.

  • Detects drugs at concentrations less than that of urine tests.

  • Tests take only 3 minutes to administer. Negative results are available in 24 hours; positives in 36 hours.

  • Contractors can perform the tests in the field.

Once you settle on a solution, it's time to implement your drug testing program. Fortunately, this final step is easier than you may think.

Implementing a drug testing program. After deciding which method of testing to pursue, there are three main steps an electrical contractor should take before getting the program up and running: 1) select a substance abuse provider; 2) complete the necessary paperwork; and 3) start the program.

First, you'll need to select a substance abuse provider or third-party administrator. The way most electrical contractors do this is by networking. Talk to other contractors or contact industry associations, or gain firsthand information at annual trade shows. Formalize the program by determining the policy, and then announcing, distributing, and administering the program across your organization.

  • Determine policy details. The company needs to decide how it will handle a positive drug result. Will it fire the individual immediately or offer rehabilitation? Typically, electrical contractors with fewer than 100 electricians offer rehab to maintain a “family atmosphere,” as most medical insurance pays for the service. Unfortunately, a large percentage of these users never complete rehab, ultimately leaving the contractor with an empty slot to fill.
  • Distribute the policy. The last page of the policy is usually a “sign off” sheet. The employee signs the sheet and gives it to the employee for safekeeping. Basically, this document means the employee received the policy — not that he or she agrees with it or has even read it. It's important that the contractor maintains these sheets in a safe location in the event of an OSHA audit or other legal implication.
  • Announce program details. These include the type of testing — pre-employment, random, post-accident, and reasonable suspicion — as well as the start date of the program.
  • Learn procedure to administer test. Usually this is accomplished through a training CD or manufacturer's web site. Typically, upon successful completion of the training, the employee earns a certificate.

In general, the company must give 60 days notice to current employees before a drug and alcohol testing program can begin, although some states don't have such requirements. For pre-employment, post-accident and reasonable suspicion testing takes place with each incident. On the other hand, a random program can start with a “baseline” test of all employees and then progress to random testing on a pre-determined basis. Typically, random tests are performed once a month (a different day/week once a month) on 10% of employees. Due to the random nature of the program, the same employee may be selected several months in a row.

Swartley is the managing partner of M. Arthur Group, Inc., West Chester, Pa.

Sidebar: Leading by example

On January 1, 2006, the Quad Cities Chapter of the National Electrical Contractors Association (NECA), in cooperation with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW), Local 145, became the first and only building trades union in the area to implement a random urine-based drug testing program for all union electricians, contractors, and in-house management employees.

According to Steve Chesley, executive manager, Quad Cities Chapter, NECA, the group had an annual drug-testing program for about six years (developed by NECA and IBEW) that wasn't meeting expectations. Because construction is a dangerous occupation in itself, Chesley says the group didn't want the threat of having a worker impaired on the job, which would increase safety hazards and possibly result in serious injury or even death. “We both recognized that the industry had a substance abuse problem, but the annual program, which tested electricians once per year, was more of an IQ test than a drug test because everyone knew exactly when they were to be tested,” he says. “Believe it or not, even with this we were getting a 3% to 4% positive rate.”

Random testing is the only true way to find out if someone has a substance abuse problem, asserts Chesley. “We are not out to catch people; our goal is to have a drug-free workforce and to get assistance to those that have a problem,” he says.

Implementing a urine-based test more than three months ago, the Quad Cities chapter's program is running smoothly, performing instant checks in order to get results within one hour of testing. “We have two testing pools — a 50% pool and a 10% pool,” Chesley explains. “Under the first option, 50% of participants are tested every year so that over a two-year period everyone has been tested at least once,” he explains. “Once their name is drawn from the 50% pool, it does not go back into the pool until everyone has been tested. When a name is drawn from the 10% pool, however, it goes right back into the drawing and can be drawn again the next month. So at a minimum, someone will be tested once every two years.”

Although the program is voluntary, Chesley clarifies that if someone refuses to participate they are not subject to referral from the union hall.

Sidebar: Saliva Testing at a Glance

Several years ago, Greg Semuskie, president, Ercole Electric, Inc., Fredericksburg, Md., wanted to start a drug program — not because he suspected problems in his business but because he wanted to maintain a high-quality, safety-oriented workplace. After looking at both urine and saliva testing programs, he chose a lab-based, FDA-cleared saliva test and started his program, which took about two months to implement.

“I wasn't crazy about sending my employees to the lab with all the downtime and dealing with urine in general,” he says. “Through the IEC, we found our third-party administrator
who set-up our random testing program. When the paperwork was completed, we announced the program to the employees and performed a baseline test shortly afterward. Since then, we've been doing random testing and have been very happy with the program.”

Looking back, Semuskie is glad he made the commitment. “My employees thanked me for starting a drug program,” he says. “They all knew who was taking drugs, and they didn't want to work with them. They told me they felt safer with this program.”

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