Drug Use in the Workplace Plummets

Drug Use in the Workplace Plummets
Posted by FoM on February 07, 2000 at 22:27:54 PT
By Edward Edelson 
Source: APBNews
He was a good, solid worker, always on the job -- until he suddenly backed his truck over a 4-inch gas line. If the line had ruptured, there would have been a serious explosion, according to the driver's employer. The accident raised a red flag, Greg DeLapp, senior employee relations specialist at Carpenter Technology Corp. in Reading, Pa., told 
Under the company's standard policy, the employee was tested for drugs and alcohol. He was positive for both. While there are signs drug use by employees has declined substantially over the last decade, the problem remains significant for Carpenter Technology and other employers nationwide. Workplace Policies 'Matter' According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMSHA), the overall rate of current drug use by employees aged 18 to 49 dropped from 17.5 percent in 1985 to 7.7 percent in 1997. "We see the largest decreases in employees using drugs in companies that are testing on a regular basis," said Barry Sample, director of forensic toxicology at Quest Diagnostics. The Teterboro, N.J.-based company is a leading contractor for workplace drug testing. While it's unclear what factors have contributed to the downward trend in employee drug use, workplace policies "matter a great deal," said Dr. J. Westley Clark, director of SAMSHA's Center for Drug Abuse Prevention. Companies with policies about detection and treatment, he said, are much less likely to have a drug problem, and large companies are increasingly adopting such procedures. Still, SAMSHA's own data suggest that nearly 73 percent of all illegal drug users in the United States are employed -- 6.7 million are full-time workers, 1.6 million work part time. Big Money Lost: Employees who used drugs were more likely to have worked for at least three companies, left a job within the previous year and skipped a day or more of work in the past week, the SAMSHA survey found. The most likely drug users were young men who had not completed high school. " Workers who use drugs are more unstable, tend to call in sick more often and are more inclined to have accidents," Clark said. It's difficult to pin down how much employee drug use costs employers in lost productivity, absenteeism, workers' compensation and other expenditures, he said. But consider these figures gathered by large corporations: IBM estimates that it costs $50,000 to terminate an employee because of drug use. General Motors calculates that its employee drug-treatment program saves $37 million a year in lost productivity. United Airlines says it gets back $16.95 in higher productivity for every dollar invested in employee drug-assistance programs. Drug Testing a Hard Sell: Nonetheless, drug detection and treatment programs can be a hard sell in this booming economy, with employers finding it difficult to get all the workers they need, Clark acknowledged. "In a low-unemployment market, management may be loath to point the finger of suspicion at workers. All these issues cost money. But having employees who are dysfunctional costs more money in the long run." Significant Decrease from 1988: During the first six months of 1999, 4.7 percent of drug tests performed by Quest Diagnostics were positive, slightly down from 4.8 percent for all of 1998, according to the Drug Testing Index. This report summarizes the results of some 2.8 million workplace drug tests performed between January and June 1999 by the laboratory. This represents a significant decrease from 1988, when 13.6 percent of all drug tests were reported as positive. The Drug Testing Index, which has been issued twice a year since 1988, is considered a benchmark for national trends by the federal government and other employers. Comparing the first half of 1999 with the previous year, among all positive results, those positive for benzodiazapines were down (3 percent vs. 3.4 percent of all positives), as were those positive for cocaine (15.8 percent vs. 17.6 percent) and opiates (5.2 percent vs. 9.7 percent). Lemonade, Mountain Dew Used: But the news isn't all good. Comparing the first half of 1999 with the previous year, among all those testing positive for drugs, amphetamines were up (4.2 percent vs. 4.0 percent), along with barbiturates (3.6 vs. 3 percent) and marijuana (62.9 percent vs. 59.2 percent. And more people tried to beat the test, too. According to Quest's Drug Testing Index, cheaters, who tested positive for substances used to adulterate or dilute their urine specimens, accounted for 1.7 percent in the first half of 1999, as compared to 0.63 percent in 1998 overall. In the first half of 1999, says Quest Diagnostics, 2,400 job applicants tested positive for adulterants to mask telltale signs of drug use in the urine, and more than 1,200 others had substituted water or a yellowish liquid for a valid test specimen. "I've even heard that lemonade and Mountain Dew have been submitted as samples," Sample said. He adds that labs have identified -- and countered -- just about all of the cheats. Testers Thwarting Cheaters: One trick is to drink lots of water to dilute the concentration of drug-related substances in the urine. Testers thwart that tactic by measuring the amount of creatinine in urine; if levels of this normal byproduct of metabolic activity are too low, they know the employee is trying to deliberately confound the results of the test. Numerous Web sites -- with such unsubtle names as and -- sell products to help people beat drug tests. "I've seen a document on one of these Web sites, How To Piss and Pass," said Sample, who found it to be "one of the more creative marketing efforts." Some adulterants are powders or teas that are mixed into water, said Sample. "You then have to drink more water two to four hours before your drug test. All you're doing is diluting your urine, and we can pick that up." Other concoctions are oxidizing agents, such as nitrites, which change the chemical composition of the marijuana metabolite in urine so that the test won't pick up its presence. These take from four to 24 hours to work based on the amount of adulterant used, the concentration of marijuana metabolite in the urine and other factors, Sample said. The problem is oxidants work "too well," he said. In the first round of screening -- which separates negative tests from those needing a closer look -- the compound hasn't had enough time to work, so the sample will test positive for marijuana and will be subjected to a second confirmatory round of testing. But by this time, he explains, "we are no longer able to then detect the marijuana metabolite in the urine" -- and the discrepancy between the two results is a tip-off. " There is a very low chance that the donor will get a negative drug test," Sample said. A Helping Hand: There are some classic warning signs of drug use, Clark said. Sometimes, they may be as obvious as a worker weaving unsteadily on the way to the job. "Very often drug and alcohol problems do not come forward directly," DeLapp said. "It may be an accident, a call from a spouse, a call from a credit union or a supervisor, a call from a peer in the labor group who recognizes that a co-worker is no longer safe." In addition to his duties at Carpenter, DeLapp is president of the Employee Assistance Professionals Association (EAPA). The organization, based in Arlington, Va., has 7,000 members who steer workers to treatment programs once a problem is detected. Drug and alcohol abuse are "part of the core problems addressed by EAPA," he said. Tests Should Be High Quality: His association has no formal position on pre-emptive drug testing, "but my personal opinion is that it is an avenue that employers should pursue," DeLapp said. But with one major condition: "Only the best technology should be used, for [the] protection of the employer and employee. Cheap buck-fifty testing will get both you and the worker in trouble, [because of] a high error rate." " Drug testing alone is not sufficient," Clark said. "What you need to have for people with a problem is treatment." "Well-publicized policies and a genuine offer of assistance when there is an alcohol or drug problem" make such a program work, said DeLapp. Recovery Helped Through Counseling: "Workers with a problem will try to survive on denial and manipulation," DeLapp cautioned. Once the problem is detected, it is "very difficult" to treat. A substance-abuse problem often requires outpatient counseling and treatment, said DeLapp, and counseling will continue for as long as necessary. "Health insurance should pay for treatment, so that the employee can be encouraged to get treatment early rather than late," Clark added. The problem is "very treatable," said DeLapp, "if the employee has the support of the employer, the union and the family, and has the health coverage available for the kind of treatment that is necessary. The employee with that kind of support will do well." For instance, take the case of DeLapp's colleague at Carpenter Technology who was abusing both drugs and alcohol: "He was sent to outpatient counseling and treatment. He did well over the next 12 or 13 months, had a temporary relapse, and since then has had eight years of solid recovery," said DeLapp. Ed Edelson is an correspondent in New York.New York (  Published: Fevruary 7, 2000 ęCopyright 2000 APB Online, Inc. Related Articles:CannabisNews Drug Testing Archives: Search Of Drug Testing Articles:
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