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The safety myth of Workplace Drug Testing


I’ve long been an opponent of mandatory workplace drug testing, either for pre-screening or random suspicion-less testing. I would never work for a company that requires it.

For one thing, workplace drug testing establishes a relationship that says the employee (and his/her body) is somehow “property” of the company, rather than a valued contributor. Additionally, workplace drug testing shows a lack of management competence, relying on flawed tests that don’t even distinguish between impairment and non-impairment, when any supervisor that has even a modicum of capability can identify an impaired employee without a test.

Why would I want to work for a company that is incompetent and considers me property?

The big lie of workplace drug testing is that it is necessary for workplace safety and to reduce workplace accidents. This is how the drug-free workplace program has been sold all across the country to the huge financial benefit of drug-testing companies, and to the detriment of the individual and the corporation that ends up paying in drug testing costs and loss of employee trust.

For many years, those who pushed for workplace drug testing touted the “Firestone Study”which supposedly claimed that:

“Recreational drug users are five times more likely to file a workers’ compensation claim and 3.7 times more likely to be involved in workplace accidents than other workers”

That was repeated uncritically in government workshops and webpages as fact (as well as in testimony to Congress). The only problem is that there was no “Firestone Study.” Researchers were able to track this mythical study to remarks from Firestone’s medical director about something else entirely.

After a number of calls and queries I received a two page document from Firestone’s Medical Director, E. Gates Morgan. The report apears to be an in-house newsletter. In it, a Mr. Ed Johnson is interviewed about the Employer Assistance Program (“EAP”) at Firestone. There are some statements pertaining to absenteeism, but these are not documented, and more importantly, refer only to a few alcoholics who have been served by the Firestone EAP. The statistics generated (if these calculations based on alcoholics were actually made) have nothing to do with drug users, recreational or otherwise.

The statistics cited about absenteeism and workers’ compensation claims may have been derived from interviews with alcoholic workers enrolled in the EAP at Firestone. These people were not identified by urine testing for alcohol, but were referred because they or others perceived that their lives were falling apart. They, unlike workers randomly tested for drug use, were dysfunctional. To use them as a justification for testing unimpaired workers is like demanding that all workers have mandatory periodic rectal temperatures taken because a case of tuberculosis was found in the workplace.

A 1994 review by the National academy of sciences said that “Despite beliefs to the contrary, the preventive effects of drug-testing programs have never been adequately demonstrated. … The data obtained in worker population studies, do not provide clear evidence of the deleterious effects of drugs other than alcohol on safety and other job performance indicators.”

Today, the Australian Drug Law Reform Foundation reports on a study by the National Centre for Education and Training on Addiction (NCETA) at Flinders University. There is a fact sheetand the full study (pdf).

The fact sheet notes:

Does workplace testing improve workplace safety?

Evidence is inconclusive regarding the efficacy of drug testing in reducing workplace accidents and injuries. While some studies suggest that testing can reduce injury and accident rates, more rigorous studies indicate testing has only a small effect or no effect at all. Claims that workplace testing can substantially reduce workplace injuries, accidents and compensation claims are not supported by the available research evidence.

The ADLRF goes on to give some good reasons for opposing drug place testing.

Here’s another bit from the study that I found interesting:

While there is evidence that alcohol and drugs play a role in workplace accidents and injuries, there is also a growing body of evidence indicating other factors may play a more important role such as:

  • fatigue
  • noise
  • dirt
  • dangerous working conditions
  • conflict at work
  • poor working conditions and procedures
  • poorly maintained equipment
  • insufficient training and supervision of employees.

And this:

Distinguishing between workplace and workforce use is important when establishing workplace safety risk. Workers who consume alcohol or drugs away from the workplace and who do not return to work until the effects of consumption (e.g., intoxication, hangover, fatigue) have dissipated are unlikely to be a direct risk to safety. By contrast, consumption during (or just prior to) work hours or consumption at the workplace after work hours, is more likely to produce a direct safety and/or productivity risk.

Past research concerning workers’ alcohol and drug use has generally failed to adequately differentiate workforce from workplace alcohol and other drug use. Similarly, substance use and substance impairment are very different, as use alone does not automatically infer impairment.

The report also had this to say about testing technology:

The most common types of testing technologies used in the workplace are breath analysis, urinalysis, and saliva testing. All three test technologies have limitations. Apart from breath analysis, which can detect alcohol intoxication, no other workplace drug test can detect intoxication or impairment. Urinalysis is particularly problematic due to its inability to distinguish between recent and past drug use.

I’d like to see someone challenge the Department of Labor with this information. Let’s establish policies based on fact and science and not on adding profits to the drug testing companies.

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