Everything Employers Need to Know About Workplace Drug Testing

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5 September 2023

Everything Employers Need to Know About Workplace Drug Testing

An employer’s drug testing policy may be voluntary, mandated by law, or a contractual obligation. The types of drug testing performed may depend on the reasons behind the employer’s decision to test employees for drug use and whether or not the employer cares about only illicit drugs or certain prescription drugs as well. Regardless of where your company is in its drug testing program, there are some important facts every employer should know.

Voluntary Employee Drug Testing

Employee drug testing has become increasingly popular as a means to improve workplace productivity and safety. Studies indicate that employees who use drugs or alcohol on the job are more likely than their sober counterparts to be injured on the job or put others at risk. Voluntary drug testing in the workplace is when a company voluntarily decides to institute a drug testing program without outside requirements to do so.

The National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence (NCADD) states that employee drug use is also associated with increased incidents of absenteeism, tardiness, theft, low morale, and employee turnover. Employees suffering from a substance abuse problem may have trouble concentrating, fall asleep at work, and have lower overall performance.

By including drug testing in a workplace drug and alcohol policy, employers hope to reduce these and other risks associated with employee drug and alcohol misuse.

Free Download: What Your Company's Drug and Alcohol Policy May Be Missing (and How to Get It Right)

Legally Mandated Employee Drug Testing

In some instances, employee drug testing is mandated by federal law. The Omnibus Transportation Employee Testing Act requires that employees who engage in safety-sensitive and/or transportation-related activities (e.g., truck drivers, air traffic controllers, and train engineers) be regularly tested for illicit drug use. The Department of Defense and Nuclear Regulatory Commission also have laws that require mandatory drug testing of certain employees.

Further, Executive Order 12564, issued by President Reagan in 1986, requires that federal agencies implement drug testing programs for all employees in "sensitive positions". The determination of which employees should be tested is to be made by each federal agency, taking into consideration the duties of the employee. The order indicates that a sensitive position is one in which the public safety or national security would be put at risk by an employee’s failure of duty.

Employees who must be tested under federal rules are often referred to as "covered employees". Learn more in "DOT vs Non DOT Testing: What's the Difference?") Also, it is important to note that state laws legalizing medical or recreational marijuana use do not exempt employers from federal regulations. (Learn more in "Medical Marijuana Law Differences and Contradictions".)

Other Reasons for Employee Drug Testing

Finally, some employers are contractually obligated to test employees for drugs. These employers may be required to implement a drug testing policy as a condition of insurance, licensing, or other contracts. Some benefits and insurance programs offer incentives to employers who include drug testing as a part of their workplace drug and alcohol plan.

When do companies conduct drug tests?

Most employers outline the times and circumstances under which drug testing may be conducted in their written drug and alcohol policy. In certain circumstances, state and federal law may limit when and how drug and alcohol testing may be performed (Learn more in "State Drug Testing Laws: What Should Employers Know?"). For example, a post-accident test may need to be performed within a certain time frame to be admissible as evidence in a court proceeding.

Rules That May Limit When an Employee May Be Drug Tested

Employers conducting drug testing pursuant to federal law must do so in conformance to the rules set forth by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) guidelines. Testing conducted pursuant to these guidelines is often called federally regulated testing or DOT testing because of Department of Transportation rules requiring testing of employees safety-sensitive positions. Testing that is not required by federal law is called non-DOT testing or non-federally regulated testing.

Regardless of the type of testing conducted, every employer drug testing policy must be implemented in a way that is fair and non-discriminatory.

5 Common Instances When an Employer Might Conduct an Employee Drug Test

Pre-Employment Drug Testing

As the name implies, pre-employment drug testing is conducted before an employee is hired. In most states, employers must disclose that all applicants will be drug tested or make a conditional job offer before requesting that a candidate submit to a pre-employment drug test.

Drug Testing in Response to Reasonable Suspicion

When an employee’s behavior leads an employer to suspect drug use, the employee may be asked to submit to a drug test. For covered employees, federal regulations define reasonable suspicion. State and other federal law, as well as the employer’s drug policy, may also define the reasonable suspicion standard.

Post-Accident Drug Testing

In most circumstances, an employee may be drug tested following an on-the-job accident or near miss. Also called post-incident testing, an employer’s request for testing must conform to Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) standards regarding anti-discrimination and anti-retaliation.

Random Drug Testing

Many employers conduct random drug testing in the workplace. DOT safety-sensitive employees are one group for which random testing is required by law. Random drug testing programs must be executed in a manner that ensures that testing times are unpredictable and every member of the target group has an equal chance at selection.

Return-to-Duty Drug Testing

Federal law requires covered employees who have been suspended or removed from duty following a failed or refused drug test for work to undergo an extensive reentry process that includes return-to-duty drug testing. Covered employees are required to undergo counseling with a substance abuse professional and produce a negative test result before returning to work. Employers of non-federally regulated individuals may set their own return to duty drug testing policies.

Other Circumstances When Drug Testing Might Be Requested by an Employer

Subject to state and federal laws and guidelines, employers are free to require drug testing in circumstances beyond those listed above. (Learn more in "State Drug Testing Laws: What Should Employers Know?") For example, some employers may require a drug test for employees periodically. This type of blanket testing program is similar to random drug testing, but covers all employees rather than those who are randomly selected. Other examples of testing situations include circumstances in which employees are tested as a probationary measure or prior to a transfer or promotion.

What are the different drug testing methods companies use?

The type of drug testing a company chooses will depend on whether or not testing is covered by SAMHSA standards. For covered employees, only specific types of tests may be used.

Under current federal law, a urine drug test is used for federal drug testing. However, there are several other methods available, in addition to point of collection urine testing and more complete lab testing of urine samples, to employers seeking to conduct non-federally regulated drug testing. Most drug tests detect either the drugs themselves, or more often, drug metabolites. The detection window of each type of drug test is dependent on the rate at which the body metabolizes and eliminates the targeted drug.

The Most Common Types of Employee Drug Tests

Urine Drug Tests

Because of its adoption by the SAMHSA guidelines, urine drug testing is one of the mostly widely used methods of drug testing (common types include 5 panel and 7 panel). It is also the only DOT approved sample type for drug testing. A urine drug test can detect drug usage having occurred one to three days before testing. Urine testing can also detect a broad range of illegal and prescription drugs, although they can require specific sample handling requirements (such as split specimens) and confirmatory tests in some cases. (Learn more in "Oral Fluid, Urine, and Hair Testing: What's the Difference?")

Oral Fluid Drug Tests

Also called saliva testing, oral fluid testing has a one- to four-day detection window for most DOT tested drugs. However, the window for detection of THC is slightly shorter. Oral fluid drug testing may be conducted with a point of collection test or with full lab analysis.(Learn more in "Everything You Need to Know About Oral Fluid Drug Testing".)

Hair Drug Tests

Testing a swatch of a donor’s hair provides the longest detection window. With an appropriate sample, past drug usage of between the prior 5 to 90 days can be detected. Once collected, a subject’s hair sample is sent to a lab for analysis. (Learn more in "Hair Follicle Drug Testing 101".)

Other Types of Employee Drug Tests

Blood Drug Test

A blood test may be used to detect the presence of drugs or alcohol in a person’s system. However, the detection window for drugs in the blood stream is short as the substances are quickly metabolized. Blood tests are sometimes used to determine a person’s current state of intoxication.

Sweat Drug Test

To perform a sweat drug test, the test subject may be asked to wear an absorbent patch for several days. The sweat collected by this patch is then analyzed for the presence of drug metabolites. Sweat patches can be used for long-term monitoring of drug use.

Breath Drug Test

Although not used for testing all illicit drug substances, breath testing is commonly used to test for the presence of alcohol. However, recent research indicates that a breath test to detect cannabis may be available in the future.

The federal government is currently considering the use of oral fluid testing as an alternative to urine testing for DOT testing. It is possible that hair, sweat, or other testing methods may be considered for approval in the future. (Learn more in "8 Things Employers Should Know About DOT Drug and Alcohol Testing".)

What drugs are drug tests intended to detect?

Drug tests may detect both illegal and legal drugs. Most drug tests are designed to detect drugs that could impair a worker’s on-the-job judgement, performance, or have other negative effects. Federal drug testing requires employers to test for five drugs: amphetamines, cocaine, THC (marijuana metabolite), opiates, and phencyclidine (PCP). Employers may choose to require drug testing that detects additional substances such as ecstasy (MDMA), oxycodone (OXY), barbiturates, methadone, and other illegal or prescription drugs.

Usually, a single test sample will be tested for a set of drugs referred to as a panel. Thus, the minimum set of five drugs required for federal drug testing is referred to as a 5 panel drug test. Other panels such as 7 or 12 panel tests are also available. (Learn more in "Drug Test Types: 5, 7, and 12 Panel Urine Screening Differences and Reasons to Use".)

What shows up in a drug test and when?

Drug tests may be used to detect the presence of a drug or its metabolites, depending on the targeted drug. Once a drug is ingested or otherwise consumed, the body begins to metabolize it. This process breaks the drug, called the parent, down into smaller chemical components. Because scientists know which metabolites are created from which parents, tests can accurately determine a person’s drug usage based on the metabolites detected by a subsequent drug test.

Since each drug has a different chemical composition and effect on the body, each also has a different detection window. For instance, LSD may become undetectable after just 8 hours. In contrast, phenobarbital may be detected fifteen days after its use. Additionally, usage patterns may affect how long a drug remains detectable. A casual marijuana user’s system may be clear of the drug after three to four days, whereas a chronic user may fail a drug test at work several weeks after his or her last exposure.

These differing detection periods are one of the primary reasons post-accident testing should be conducted as soon as possible following an incident.

What are drug test cutoff levels and how are they determined?

A drug cutoff level is the value that distinguishes a positive drug test result from a negative one. Rather than require only those tests with a result of zero to be deemed negative, using a cutoff level provides for some margin of error. For federal drug testing, these levels are determined by the SAMHSA.

Each drug and type of drug test has a specified cutoff level. Additionally, the cutoff level for an initial workplace drug screening test may differ from that of a confirmatory test. For example, the initial drug cutoff level for the presence of marijuana metabolites is 50 nanograms per milliliter (ng/ml). Even if the test detects the presence of the drug below this level, the drug test will still be reported as negative.

If an initial drug test exceeds this cutoff level, then a confirmatory test is conducted using a different process of analysis. For a confirmatory drug test of marijuana metabolites, the SAMHSA cut off level is 15 ng/ml. A sample with a concentration of marijuana metabolite at or above this level will be deemed positive.

How accurate are drug tests?

The accuracy of a drug test will depend on the particular type of drug being detected and the method of testing and analysis used. Likewise, the circumstances under which each test might result in an invalid test vary.

Rapid Result and Point-of-Collection Drug Tests

Some point of collection (POC), or rapid result, tests are not highly sensitive and may not produce highly accurate results. These can also be more susceptible to cheating, although things such as temperature testing can catch casual cheaters. (Learn more in "POCT vs Lab Testing: What's the Difference?") These tests are often sold for personal use. Because of their convenience and affordability, an employer might use POC drug tests for initial screenings of non-safety-sensitive employees.

Lab-Based Drug Testing

In contrast, lab-based drug tests are subjected to rigorous procedural steps intended to meet minimum standards of accuracy. Additionally, federal regulations specify the methods that must be employed to ensure accuracy of drug testing mandated under federal laws. These standards are often referred to as the DOT test standards to distinguish them from those used for non-DOT testing. To maintain certification, federally approved labs use the DOT test standards for non-DOT tests as well.

Does alcohol use affect a drug test?

While drug and alcohol testing are often considered similar, drug testing is not affected by a person’s alcohol use. Each drug and drug metabolite has a distinct chemical signature. It is this chemical composition that is detected when a test sample is analyzed. Because alcohol has a different chemical signature, it will not affect a test designed to target another drug.

How to Stay Informed About Workplace Drug Testing

Federal and state laws and regulations regarding employee drug testing can be complicated. Plan to visit Workplacetesting.com often to stay up to date and informed about the rules governing your drug-free workplace. You’ll also find tips and advice to keep your employees safe, healthy, and productive.