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Employer Drug Testing: An Overview

It’s no secret that the use of alcohol and illicit drugs can impair a person’s judgment, dexterity and overall safety. What is shocking is the amount of liability costs employers face when an impaired employee harms others in the workplace. Estimates place the cost of workplace illicit drug use at $81 million annually, making employers wonder if they should be drug testing. If you, too, are asking that question, this fact sheet provides information that may help you decide your position.


Let’s start with the facts about substance abuse:

  • 30.5 million people age 12 or older used an illicit drug in the past 30 days, which equates to 1 in 9 or 11.2 % of Americans.
  • Approximately 25% of young adults age 18 to 25 are current illicit drug users.
  • Numbers for the initial use of illicit substances are: 4.9 million new alcohol users, 3.0 million new marijuana users, 2 million misused prescription painkillers, and 886,000 new heroin users.
  • Approximately 19.7 million people age 12 or older had a substance use disorder in 2017. The most common illicit drug use disorders are with marijuana (4.1 million people) and opioids (2.1 million people).
  • 70% of drug abusers are employed, and the loss to companies in the U.S. totals $100 billion per year.
  • The number of people diagnosed with a substance abuse disorder in the U.S. is comparable to the number of people who have diabetes.

SOURCE: 2017 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, an annual survey by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), which is considered the leading authority on the topic.


Performance and Behavioral Problems Caused by Substance Abuse

  • Increased absenteeism: Substance abusers are 2.5 times more likely to be absent more than eight days a year than their peers. Employers with absenteeism rates greater than 15% that instituted a drug-testing program saw a reduction of absenteeism by about 50% overall.
  • Increased accidents and workers’ compensation (WC) claims – WC claims filed by substance abusers as much as double the cost of a WC claim. According to Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), employers that instituted a drug testing program saw a decrease of about 50% in WC claims.
  • Loss of productivity: The U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) reports substance abusers are 33% less productive than their peers. According to a SHRM survey, employers who instituted a drug-testing program saw a 19% increase in productivity.
  • Employee turnover: Substance abusers change jobs as often as three times per year, according to SHRM.
  • Theft.
  • Inconsistent work quality.
  • Carelessness, mistakes and/or poor decision making.
  • Greater employer/employee conflict.
  • Low employee morale.


Most recently, there has been significant attention paid to the misuse of opiates. Medical and government sources have reported that 130 people die every day from drug overdose. One drug gaining popularity with drug abusers is called fentanyl, a synthetic opioid. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency reports fentanyl to be 80-100 times the strength of morphine, making it that much more deadly. Additionally, fentanyl is being used to lace other drugs to increase their potency, often without consumer knowledge. This too is contributing to the increase of overdose deaths.


Sources of Illicit Drugs

  • Mexico produces about 70 tons of heroin per year; 4-6% comes from Asia, principally Afghanistan, the origin of most heroin consumed elsewhere in the world.
  • America is the world’s highest consumer of heroin with an estimated consumption of 90-94% of what is produced.
  • Approximately 90% of cocaine seized in the U.S. in 2015 was of Colombian origin.
  • Methamphetamine is overwhelmingly synthesized in Mexico.
  • Fentanyl is mostly produced in Asia but passes through Mexico.


The DOL reported that drug and alcohol use in the workplace causes 65 percent of on-the-job accidents. What’s more, substance abusers use 16 times as many health care benefits and are six times more likely to file WC claims than non-abusers. Workers who are abusing drugs are also less productive in the workplace than their peers, and far more likely to change jobs frequently. All of these costs take away from your bottom line.


Drug-testing programs provide a powerful deterrent to drug use on the job and are a key component in protecting the safety, health and welfare of employees; those under the employee’s care; and the general public. SHRM found that companies with a high WC incident rate (frequency of injuries) reported a drop from 14% to 6% after implementing drug-testing programs, an improvement of 57 percent.


When Drug Testing can be Performed

  • Post-offer, pre-employment: This ensures you do not hire a candidate who is abusing drugs.
  • At random: Random drug screens occur without notice. This type of program is the most effective in that it offers the greatest deterrent for drug use. It must be conducted on a continual basis throughout the year.
  • With reasonable suspicion: This helps ensure an employee that looks impaired, has exercised poor judgement, or seems “off” today, is not so because of illicit drug use.
  • Post-accident: This helps employers identify whether an accident or injury occurred or was influenced by illicit drug use. Many states reduce an employer’s WC liability if a post-accident drug screen comes up positive. Check your state’s legislation or ask your WC carrier whether this reduced benefit applies to you.
  • After returning to work: This testing may be conducted after an employee has a positive drug screen that does not result in termination. Return-to-work drug screening is needed to ensure the employee is free from the effects of illicit drugs before allowing him or her to return to work. You must decide whether this option is good for your company, build it into your policy, then administer your program consistent with this decision.


Drug-testing Concerns Raised by Employers

  • It is too expensive and time-consuming. Direct-read specimen containers, often called “quick cups,” are widely available in the market. The cost of the drug test is dependent upon the panel of drugs screened for, whether the test is a direct-read, who collects the specimen, and whether the specimen is sent to a laboratory for analysis. The more drugs screened for, the greater the cost. The most basic panel is called a 5-panel. A quick internet search brought up a 10-panel urine test kit priced at $3.95. The drugs screened for should be those commonly used by illicit drug abusers and those routinely administered to patients/residents in your facility and have the potential for diversion.     
  • Drug testing might lead to lawsuits. As long as drug testing and the consequence of a positive drug test is explained to candidates and employees prior to the collection of a drug screen, employers cannot be sued for invasion of privacy or discrimination on the grounds of drug testing.
  • Drug testing leads to employee resentment. Employees need to understand that employers make decisions every day that are in the business’s best interest. Drug testing is just that. It makes the business a safer place for all employees and makes the business more profitable.


Wait! There’s More
Before instituting a drug-testing program, it’s also important to consider the following:

  • The essential components of a drug testing program.
  • Selection of the appropriate panel of drugs to screen for.
  • Selection of the appropriate testing method: urine, saliva, hair, etc.
  • Deciding how best to administer a drug testing program: Employer collection, local provider collection, and/or laboratory analysis
  • How the legalization of marijuana impacts employer drug testing.
  • When to drug test: post-offer, pre-placement; at random; with reasonable suspicion; post-accident; return to work.


Additional Resources on Drug Testing
We have developed other fact sheets related to this topic for your reference:



Occupational Health & Safety | Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMSHA) |SAMHSA’s 2017 National Survey on Drug Use and Health | Society for Human Resource Management | HireRight | Countrywide Testing




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