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Safety vs. Privacy: a look at drug-free policies

When an employee at one electrical contracting company returned from lunch reeking of marijuana smoke, management decided it was time for a more stringent drug-free workplace policy. The 60-year-old company's policy already included pre-employment and post-accident drug testing, so management didn't foresee problems with adding random testing. But, with the announcement of random testing, came a stream

When an employee at one electrical contracting company returned from lunch reeking of marijuana smoke, management decided it was time for a more stringent drug-free workplace policy. The 60-year-old company's policy already included pre-employment and post-accident drug testing, so management didn't foresee problems with adding random testing. But, with the announcement of random testing, came a stream of angry workers. A few of the company's 85 employees even admitted to smoking marijuana on the weekend, and they said the company had no right to control their free time.

Drug testing is a touchy subject. While some view it as an invasion of privacy, others see it as a much-needed safety mechanism for employees, employers, and customers.

Currently, the construction industry has one of the highest rates of substance abuse among full-time workers. With the tight labor market, it could get worse. The pool of job seekers the construction industry traditionally draws from has a high rate of use - 20.5% of men between the ages of 18 and 25 used illicit drugs in the past month, according to the 1998 National Household Survey on Drug Abuse.

Additionally, electrical contracting companies overwhelmingly fall into the category of small businesses, which experts say are sanctuaries for drug users. "Small companies are becoming havens for substance abusers because they know they can go there and there's rarely testing," said Judy Swartley, who consulted with the electrical contracting company described above and owns Quantum Inc., a Philadelphia-area safety/management consulting firm. "I can't emphasize enough the benefit of random testing if a company wants to get rid of substance abusers," Swartley said.

Joe Pollock, president of ChemQuest Inc. in Lafayette Hill, Pa., agrees with Swartley. Pollock, whose company does drug testing and drug program management, said random testing is the "true deterrent" to substance abuse. In the last two years he said he has seen more and more small businesses implement drug testing programs - following the lead of most Fortune 500 companies.

If an electrical contractor wants big contracts with Fortune 500 companies, a substance-abuse testing program is something to think about. "I am seeing more and more customers require drug-free programs.especially with Fortune 500 companies," Swartley said.

Customer drive is why the IBEW Local 701's Labor Management Cooperation Committee (LMCC), Lisle, Ill., started its drug-testing program in 1996. The LMCC, an association between the local's contractors and electricians, saw a need when customers and contractors had different ideas for implementing drug-testing programs. "The common thread between the customers, contractors and ourselves was the electricians," said Mike Zitkus, LMCC administrator. "It seemed logical to have.our own testing program."

Testing is voluntary and workers testing negative are issued "drug-free" cards. These cards often serve as tickets onto a drug-free work site. "The other trades in the area don't really have a program, and it's kind of chaotic for them when a call comes.for a drug-free job," Zitkus said. "Our members don't have to take a drug test on the site like all the other trades do for our job sites that have accepted our drug programs."

Certainly, our government provides incentives for businesses that establish programs. Last year, with its Drug-Free Workplace Act of 1998, Congress again emphasized the need for drug-free workplace programs. To encourage businesses to adopt programs, Congress recommends states consider incentives, such as reductions in workers' compensation and unemployment insurance premiums; tax deductions equal to expenditures for employee-assistance programs, treatment, or drug testing; and adoption of liability limitations. The Drug-Free Workplace Act of 1988 also requires certain federal contractors and grantees to maintain a drug-free workplace. Required maintenance, however, is more through awareness programs and policy - not drug testing.

Drug-free workplace programs Basic components of a drug-free workplace program include a written policy, supervisor training, and employee education. Programs can also include an employee-assistance program, and drug and alcohol testing, but they are not required by the Drug-Free Workplace Act.

Written policy. A must for any drug-free program, a written policy should clearly state the company's objectives, give a description of unacceptable behavior, and explain the consequences of violating policy. Supervisor training. Supervisor support and participation is also key to the success of a company's drug policy. The IBEW Local 701 includes a four-hour-long supervisor training class about the dangers of alcohol and drugs. Supervisors also learn how to recognize and document abnormal behavior and how to effectively deal with someone behaving strangely.

"That's probably the most important part of that class," Zitkus said. "You can't go up to someone and say, 'I think you have a drug problem.'" Instead, supervisors are advised to state facts. "You have to say, 'Here's what I observed (physical/mental impairment), and I suspect there is a problem,'" Zitkus said.

Educating employees. Employee education is also critical for a successful program. "We really encourage companies to have a face-to-face meeting with their employees," said ChemQuest's Pollock. Some companies include a class about the effect of substance abuse on workplace safety, productivity, etc.; how the policy applies to employees; the consequences for violating the policy; and other program components, such as employee-assistance programs (EAP) and drug/alcohol testing.

Employee Assistance Program (EAP). Employee assistance programs help workers whose job performances are affected by personal problems. Pollock, a certified employee-assistance professional, said that for employees who test positive, treatment provides a good chance of recovering.

For every dollar companies invest in EAPs, they save anywhere from $5 to $16 in reduced accident costs, workers' compensation claims, absenteeism, and employee theft, according to a report from the U.S. Department of Labor. The annual cost of an EAP ranges from $12 to $20 per person.

But Swartley said providing a rehabilitation option when someone tests positive doesn't always pay off. At the electrical contracting company that tightened its drug policy, most of the employees who started rehab dropped out. "It comes down to if a company wants to invest the time and consequently the money," Swartley said.

Drug and alcohol testing. Setting up a testing program is not simple, but more companies are doing it. "You should never ever test without a policy because it could lead to lots.of problems and litigation," Pollock said. He also cautions employers to be consistent in how they apply policy.

Types of drug testing Although companies with drug testing policies are trying to take a proactive stance, the timing of some tests is purely reactionary. Reasonable-suspicion and for-cause tests are conducted when an employee shows obvious signs of being unfit for work, or a pattern of unsafe behavior has been documented. But these tests aren't given very often because supervisors are reluctant to accuse workers, Pollock said.

The opportunity for post-accident testing is also often overlooked. Employees involved in an accident can be tested to find out if alcohol or other drug use was a factor, but employers dealing with a crisis often forget about testing until the next day. Then it's too late.

Some companies try to combat these reactionary tactics by testing early. Pre-employment testing decreases the chances of hiring a current user, but it has its drawbacks, too. "The problem with pre-employment testing is some applicants will not use drugs for six weeks before they start their job search," Swartley said. "At that point, all their tests will come up totally clean."

Random testing catches the people following that strategy-workers never know when they're going to be tested. Some businesses say they can't afford to lose workers and are hesitant about random testing, but it worked out for the 60-year-old electrical contracting company. Although about 20% of the 85-employees eventually quit over policy, sales dipped momentarily only about 4%. Since then, they've replaced the employees, and revenues have increased. Plus, the company is saving 20% on insurance premiums.

"Many workers came to us and thanked us," Swartley said. "They feel safer on the job because they know they aren't working next to a substance abuser."

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