By William F. Current

Would you be surprised to learn that nearly a quarter of your workers were illegal drug users? It could happen. Consider what a California-based contractor discovered several years ago when it decided to prove that its workers were not druggies.

On a given day following 30 days advance notice employees were asked to volunteer for a drug test.  Of the 179 people on the payroll, 80 volunteered. The urine samples were collected by an independent laboratory, tested and reported directly to the contractor. No names were used in either the collection or the reporting of the results. Three different construction sites were chosen to represent a cross section of employees from northern, central and southern California .

The results speak for themselves:  the percentage of tests that were positive for one or more drugs was 24 percent, a quarter of the employee population. From that group 15 percent tested positive for marijuana and 10 percent tested positive for cocaine.[i] Wow!  And that was from a group of volunteers.

The Drug Problem Today

America has made progress in addressing its drug problem over the past 10 years, but unfortunately the problem has not gone away. The federal government’s annual report on substance abuse indicates just how serious the issue is.

For example, there are approximately 19 million current (use in the last 30 days) illicit drug users 18 and older.  Further, there are about 35 million prescription drug abusers. There are nearly 16 million adults 21 and older who admit to being “heavy” drinkers (5 or more drinks on at least 5 or more occasions every month); and there are 2.3 million Americans younger than 21 who admit to being heavy drinkers.[ii]

Several national reports on teen substance abuse do not paint a promising picture of the near future outlook.  And, of course, today’s teen drug user is tomorrow’s job applicant.

Drugs in the Construction Workplace

The federal government estimates that 77 percent of all illicit drug users 18 and older are employed.[iii] And the industry that is often identified for having the highest rate of illicit drug users is the construction industry.

A 1996 federal government survey, the last such survey conducted by the government, showed how serious the problem is for construction companies. Among full-time construction workers between the ages of 18 and 49 more than 12 percent reported illicit drug use in the month before the survey was conducted; almost 21 percent reported illicit drug use during the past year. Additionally, approximately 13 percent admitted to being “heavy” alcohol users.[iv]

Rates of substance abuse among different occupations in the construction industry included:

Position Current Illicit Drug Use (percent) Past Year Illicit Drug Use (percent) Current Heavy Alcohol Use (percent)
Construction Laborers 12.8 25.4 19.9
Construction Supervisors 17.2 25.9 12.7
Other Construction Workers 17.3 23.4 20.6

How Drug Abuse Affects the Construction Industry

Generally speaking, we know that substance abusing workers are less productive, tend be unreliable, are more likely to be involved in workplace confrontations and acts of violence, and steal from their employers and others at a higher rate than their non-using co-workers.

A compelling study by the U.S. Postal Service found that substance abusers, again when compared to their non-substance abusing co-workers, are involved in 55 percent more accidents, and sustain 85 percent more on-the-job injuries.[v] Further, the National Safety Council reported that 80 percent of those injured in “serious” drug-related accidents at work are not the drug abusing employees but innocent co-workers and others.[vi]

It also stands to reason that if the construction industry employs more drug users than other industries, then the impact of drug abuse would be significant at construction sites. And, given the safety sensitive nature of the construction industry, that impact is most significant in the area of safety.

A study conducted by a Cornell University graduate student found that construction laborers between 25 and 34 years of age who have been treated for substance abuse have a time-loss injury rate of 23.6 per 100 full-time equivalent workers (FTEs). That’s nearly double the rate of non-substance abusers, who had a rate of 12.2 FTEs.

The majority of the cases, 85 percent, involved treatment for alcohol abuse.  The study concluded that the difference between the known substance abusers and the non-substance abusers is “likely understated.” The study observed that:

“Injuries were counted as related to substance abuse only after substance abuse was diagnosed, yet 1/3 of the substance abusers’ work-related injuries occurred before diagnosis.”[vii] The study only tracked workers on union jobs and only substance abusers treated in programs paid for by union health insurance.

Drug Testing As a Solution

The construction industry is especially affected by drug abuse given that it tends to hire a higher proportion of substance abusers. As a result, employers in the construction industry tend to be very concerned about the issue and are probably more likely to have a comprehensive drug-free workplace program in place. And among the components of such a program is drug and alcohol testing.
Drug and alcohol testing have proven to be highly effective ways of deterring substance abuse and identifying those who need help.  It is legal in every state, though a handful of states regulate it, and commonly accepted as way of life in American industry.
For many years construction companies that drug test have utilized the services of a laboratory certified by the federal government’s Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) to analyze all drug screens.  And for many years this was the best testing method available.  However, while drug testing makes a lot of sense for many construction companies waiting 2-4 days to get a result from a lab is highly impractical. When a drug test result is the only thing stopping a crew of 20 or 30 new workers from starting a job, an immediate, accurate result is really what is needed.

Rapid result, on-site testing has become a popular alternative to traditional lab-based testing, especially in safety-sensitive industries such as the construction industry. Often a construction company can significantly reduce the time it takes to conduct a test by utilizing rapid result testing. The results are available within minutes and, depending on the product being used, can be as accurate as the screening technologies used in laboratories.

When accidents or some other unacceptable behavior occurs, construction companies rarely have the luxury of waiting for a lab result to come in 24-48 hours later. Rapid result testing is a viable option for post-accident and reasonable suspicion drug testing.

Rapid Drug Testing Is Union Friendly

Union members are typically in favor of drug testing. A Gallup survey found that 71 percent of full-time union workers favor employers’ right to conduct pre-employment testing.  Further, when asked, “would you favor or oppose your company adopting or maintaining a drug testing policy,” 66 percent of union respondents said they would favor such a policy compared to 26 percent who said they would not.

Union workers are just like any other workers, the vast majority are not drug users, yet they know who the drug users at work are and they don’t like working side by side with them, especially in safety-sensitive worksites.

The general concerns that some union may have about drug testing are addressed with rapid drug testing.  Rapid drug testing delivers fast results making it possible for workers who test negative to get back on the job quickly.

Unions are interested in the integrity of the testing process. A rapid drug test can be witnessed throughout every phase of the testing process.  Workers actually get to see the entire test take place.  There is never a question about chain of custody.  And because the analysis can be witnessed there is rarely any confrontation between the tested worker and the test administrator over a result.

Unions are interested in preserving the clean records of their members.  Again, because the majority of all drug screens are negative, tested workers are not only back on the job faster, but there’s no lingering question about the result as management, the union, and workers wait a couple of days for a lab-tested result to come back.

Oral Fluid Testing

Construction employers also now have options available in terms of what specimen to test. No longer is urine the only specimen recognized as an accurate medium for detecting drugs. Oral fluid and hair samples have proven to be effective in detecting drugs of abuse. Oral fluid testing, in particular, is an attractive option to the construction industry because it can be conducted either with a rapid result device or through a laboratory.

Oral fluid testing eliminates the inconvenience of securing a restroom in the middle of a construction site. It makes it possible for every collection to be observed, and eliminates concerns about mixed gender collections.

Studies show that oral fluid testing is an accurate indicator of the presence of drugs in a person’s system.

When Choosing a Rapid Result Testing Device

A word of caution about rapid result testing: Not all of these testing devices are created equal. While the prices of these products have come down significantly in the last few years, the old adage “you get what you pay for” often comes into play. When considering instant testing, be it with urine or oral fluid, consider the following:

  1. Make sure your state allows it. Most states have no restrictions on instant testing or oral fluid testing, some do.
  2. Look for urine devices that are approved by the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA). This is quickly becoming the gold standard for instant urine testing. Instant oral fluid testing has not passed FDA muster yet, though are there several reliable products available.
  3. Limit your considerations to devices that come with independent scientific data to back up all accuracy claims. It’s not enough to see it in writing; make sure the source is an independent, objective one.
  4. Try all devices under consideration in real work situations. Devices differ in how they are administered, how results are read, how long it takes to get a result, etc. Make sure the device you’re considering will work for you.
  5. Deal with a provider who has been in the business more than a few months (and maybe even years). You’re going to need support, both technical and perhaps legal. Not all providers have staffs of experts on hand to answer your questions.

About the Author: Mr. Current is a principal with the firm WFC & Associates,

Substance Abuse Prevention Consultants

8627 N.W. 50 Drive

Coral Springs , FL 33067

Ph: 954-255-8650 / Fax: 954-344-0707 Report, Vol. 7, No. 2 (Apr 2005).

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