Getting a Perfect Picture of Employee Drug Use Proves Difficult with Current Screening Methods

Prospective job candidates are not the only individuals who face the likelihood of undergoing a drug screening prior to gaining employment. Employers often conduct random drug screenings on current employees depending on the nature of the workplace, and an employee under suspicion of violating a drug and alcohol use policy may also be subject to such a test. Regardless of the reason for the drug screening, the current methods available limit an employer’s ability to get a comprehensive picture of an individual’s drug use, and doing so may even violate laws in certain states.

Employers, except where federally mandated for safety reasons, are able to implement their own requirements and regulations as to how they screen employees for drug use. Even with a multitude of options at their disposal, many employers choose to screen according to SAMHSA (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration) guidelines, the set of standards to which those in safety-sensitive federal positions must adhere. SAMHSA drug screenings (most commonly procured by urinalysis) go through laboratories and deliver highly accurate results, but they only screen for five substances in addition to alcohol: amphetamines, THC, cocaine, opiates, and phencyclidine. While these five substances cover a large population of illegal drugs, they do not offer a full scope, and drug users have become increasingly proficient at achieving a clean urinalysis while using the aforementioned substances.

Drug testing panels available to private employers can check for a wider range of illegal drugs, while also testing for prescription drugs and controlled substances. However, conducting these panels and making employment decisions based on their results, particularly if the drug test is randomly conducted on a current employee, can conflict with certain laws. In some states, legislation protects individuals with a history of drug or alcohol addiction (who have been given disability status) from certain types of drug screenings. Other states prohibit the frequency of random drug testing on employees, unless they are in a federal, safety-sensitive line of work.

The biggest issue with current drug screening methods, whether conducted under SAMHSA protocol or other methods utilized by private employers, is that most drug tests cannot gauge impairment due to drug or alcohol use. Level of impairment is one of the biggest concerns in a workplace, because it is most likely to affect the safety of others and employee productivity. When performing a drug test on an employee, employers often have to choose between gauging an individual’s drug use history or assessing their current level of impairment. Hair and urine samples provide a better understanding of historical drug use for up to 90 days (if the person is using drugs that stay in the system that long), while oral (saliva) and blood tests provide a better gauge of someone’s level of impairment. The latter tests can tell an employer if an employee is under the influence of drugs and/or alcohol, but they cannot determine habitual use.

Though current drug screening methods cannot tell employers everything they want to know about their prospective and current employees, they can reduce the likelihood of drug use entering the workplace. Setting a precedent for a clean, safe working environment by conducting drug screenings on new employees, and testing those under suspicion of impairment in the workplace, sends the message that employers will not tolerate drug abuse. The more education employers gain on the drug screening methods available to them, the better they can educate their employees on how to create a safe and productive place to work.