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OSHA Drug Testing - Workplace Substance Abuse

The vast majority of drug users are employed, and when they arrive for work, they don't leave their problems at the door. Of the 17.2 million illicit drug users aged 18 or older in 2005, 12.9 million (74.8 percent) were employed either full or part time. Furthermore, research indicates that between 10 and 20 percent of the nation's workers who die on the job test positive for alcohol or other drugs. In fact, industries with the highest rates of drug use are the same as those at a high risk for occupational injuries, such as construction, mining, manufacturing and wholesale.


OSHA recognizes that impairment by drug or alcohol use can constitute an avoidable workplace hazard and that drug-free workplace programs can help improve worker safety and health and add value to American businesses. OSHA strongly supports comprehensive drug-free workforce programs, especially within certain workplace environments, such as those involving safety-sensitive duties like operating machinery.


A comprehensive drug-free workforce approach includes five components—a policy, supervisor training, employee education, employee assistance, and drug testing. Such programs, especially when drug testing is included, must be reasonable and take into consideration employee rights to privacy.


OSHA understands that many workers with substance abuse problems can be returned safely to the workplace provided they have access to appropriate treatment, continuing care and supportive services.


Although not required by OSHA, drug-free workplace programs are natural compliments to other initiatives that help ensure safe and healthy workplaces and add value to America’s businesses and communities.


OSHA works closely with the US Department of Labor’s Working Partners for an Alcohol- and Drug-Free Workplace program to help employers ensure their health and safety plans are enhanced through workplace drug prevention. In particular, OSHA and Working Partners strive to raise awareness about the impact drugs and alcohol have on the workplace and provide information on how to establish drug-free workplace programs. A particular focus is placed on small businesses, since they are less likely than their larger counterparts to have mechanisms in place to prevent workplace substance abuse—despite being more likely to suffer from its negative impact.


Also, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) Division of Workplace Programs provides guidance for employers on workplace drug-testing issues, and its GetFit.SAMHSA.gov website provides a range of information about workplace wellness issues, including drugs and alcohol.


Drugs at work

When it comes to workplace substance abuse, small businesses have big disadvantages. They are less likely than large companies to have programs in place to combat the problem, yet they are more likely to be the "employer-of-choice" for illicit drug users. Individuals who can't adhere to a drug-free workplace policy seek employment at firms that don't have one, and the cost of just one accident caused by an impaired employee can devastate a small business.


The good news is that small businesses have enormous power to improve the safety and health of their workplaces and employees by implementing drug-free workplace programs that educate employees about the dangers of drug abuse and encourage individuals with related problems to seek help. Such programs help reduce occupational injuries and illnesses and send a clear signal that employers care about the safety and health of their employees.


Some small businesses do not effectively address the issue due to a lack of resources, such as staff to seek information about it and provide assistance to employees who have related problems. This reluctance may be reinforced by confusion over the cost of running drug-free workplace programs and what action can be legally taken, particularly regarding drug testing and disciplinary procedures.


Drug Testing

Some employers decide to drug test employees for a variety of reasons, such as deterring and detecting drug use, as well as providing concrete evidence for intervention, referral to treatment and/or disciplinary action. Before deciding to conduct testing, employers should consider a few factors, including:

Who will be tested? Options may include all staff, job applicants and/or employees in safety-sensitive positions.
When will tests be conducted? Possibilities including pre-employment, upon reasonable suspicion or for cause, post-accident, randomly, periodically and post-rehabilitation.
Which drugs will be tested for? Options including testing applicants and employees for illegal drugs and testing employees for a broader range of substance, including alcohol and certain prescription drugs.
How will tests be conducted? Different testing modes are available, and many states have laws that dictate which may and may not be used.


Employers also must be familiar with any local, state and Federal laws or any collective bargaining agreements that may impact when, where and how testing is performed. It is strongly recommended that legal counsel be sought before starting any testing program.


The majority of employers across the United States are NOT required to drug test and many state and local governments have statutes that limit or prohibit workplace testing, unless required by state or Federal regulations for certain jobs. Also, drug testing is NOT required under the Drug-Free Workplace Act of 1988. On the other hand, most private employers have the right to test for a wide variety of substances. It is very important that before designing a drug-testing program you familiarize yourself with the various state and Federal regulations that may apply to your organization.

Federal agencies conducting drug testing must follow standardized procedures established by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. These Mandatory Guidelines for Federal Workplace Drug Testing include having a Medical Review Officer (MRO) evaluate tests. They also identify the five substances (amphetamines, cannabinoids, cocaine, opiates and phencyclidine) tested for in Federal drug-testing programs and require the use of drug labs certified by SAMHSA.

While private employers are not required to follow SAMHSA's guidelines, doing so will help them stay on safe legal ground. Court decisions have supported following the guidelines and testing for only those drugs identified in them and for which laboratories are certified. As a result, many employers choose to follow them.

The current law in the private sector generally permits non-union companies to require applicants and/or employees to take drug tests. All employers should consult with legal advisors to ensure that they comply with any applicable state or local laws and design their testing programs to withstand legal challenges. In unionized workforces, the implementation of testing programs must be negotiated. Even when testing is required by Federal regulations, certain aspects of how the policy is implemented must be agreed upon through collective bargaining.

More detailed information about drug testing is available from the Drug and Alcohol Testing Industry Association and the Substance Abuse Program Administrators Association.


Having a drug-free workplace program in place is a workplace’s best line of defense against alcohol and drug problems. However, since careful planning and consideration is required, a program cannot be put in place overnight. In the meantime, extreme caution should be exercised in addressing existing problems.


The following organizations and resources provide free, confidential assistance to individuals who have, or know someone who has, a problem with alcohol or other drugs.

Substance Abuse Treatment Locator
Phone: 1-800-662-HELP
This Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) Web site
and toll-free phone line help individuals locate drug and alcohol abuse treatment
programs in their communities.

This free, confidential Web site lets individuals privately assess their own drinking habits and receive personalized feedback to help them determine if they need help to change those habits. Individuals can also find out about facilities in their communities that offer drug and alcohol abuse treatment and consultations with qualified health professionals regarding alcohol problems.

Phone: (888) 4AL-ANON
Al-Anon provides information on the effects of alcohol abuse and refers friends and families of alcohol abusers to nearby support groups. Al-Anon’s purpose is to help families and friends of alcoholics recover from the effects of living with the problem drinking of a relative or friend. Alateen is the organization’s program for young people whose lives have been affected by someone else's drinking.

Alcoholics Anonymous (AA)
Phone: (212) 870-3400
AA offers a way to stop drinking to individuals who feel they have a problem with alcohol. AA groups are located in most cities and rural communities throughout the country. Look up “Alcoholics Anonymous” in a local telephone directory for a contact in your area.

American Council on Alcoholism
Phone: (800) 527-5344
This service provides referrals to alcoholism treatment programs nationwide and distributes written materials on alcohol abuse problems.

Cocaine Anonymous
Phone: (800) 347-8998
Cocaine Anonymous provides support for people dependent on cocaine and other mind-altering substances. Callers are referred to local helplines.

Phone: (800) 477-6291
This worldwide program provides support for friends and families of individuals with substance abuse problems.

Focus on Recovery Helpline
Phone: (800) 234-0420
This helpline provides support and information for recovering drug addicts through referral to local helplines staffed by other recovering addicts.

National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence Hopeline
Phone: (800) NCA-CALL
This organization, a planning and oversight agency for public substance abuse treatment programs, provides written information on alcohol and drug abuse and referrals to treatment and counseling services nationwide.

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