By John Hawes
Substance abuse in the workplace is a very real problem for small businesses. It’s also a costly one.
According to the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, drug abuse alone costs workplaces $130 billion in lost productivity, while alcohol abuse is costing upward of $240 billion—73% of which is due to lost productivity—according to the Centers for Disease Control. Alcohol, cannabis, and opioid pain medications are the most frequent substances used. To give you a sense of the extent of the problem, consider this:
- The U.S. is the world’s largest per capita consumer of prescription opioids.
- 10% of Americans (24 million people) consume more than 10 alcoholic drinks per day.
- 22 million Americans have used marijuana in the last month.
Both alcohol and drug abuse have also been linked to absenteeism, accidents and injuries at work, not to mention the established link between substance abuse and both workplace harassment and violence. This workplace problem affects all age groups, genders, and professions.
The legalization of marijuana in several states, as well as in Canada, is likely to further complicate and accelerate the issue for employers. Like any other business owner, you need your employees to be alert, responsive, and accurate and you want to avoid the exposure attached to substance abuse related errors and accidents. A workplace drug testing program is one possible solution. If you’re considering one, here’s what to consider.
Your legal obligations
While a drug testing program can help you reduce risk, there are additional concerns around privacy, discrimination, and reasonable exercise of management rights. Essentially, the restrictions on testing are related to either privacy concerns or the use of testing as a threat or punitive measure against employees claiming illness or injury.
In addition, there are numerous federal regulations and a myriad of state regulations. Federal laws include those that regulate Department of Transportation (DOT) associated employers and mandate drug and alcohol testing for employees. DOT-regulated employers include those in the aviation, trucking, railroad, mass transit, pipeline, or maritime industries as well as companies whose employees work in specific DOT-identified safety-sensitive positions. Employers who have contracts with the federal government or have received grants from the federal government may be required to implement a drug and alcohol testing program for their employees.
State regulations are generally classified as open, voluntary, or mandatory. Open states have no regulations about drug or alcohol testing in the workplace. Voluntary states offer a worker’s compensation discount to employees who implement testing in the workplace. There are laws to follow if you opt to join the voluntary program, but no restrictions if you don’t.
States with mandatory requirements have laws that clearly govern what you’re allowed to do with respect to drug and alcohol testing in the workplace. Generally, to legally administer drug and alcohol testing in your workplace you must meet at least one of the following conditions:
- Your employee’s job poses a significant safety risk.
- Your employee is enrolled or has recently completed a drug rehabilitation program.
- Your employee was involved in a work-related incident where drug use is suspected.
- You have a reasonable suspicion that a given employee has been using illicit drugs.
Although 29 states and DC have legalized the use of medical marijuana, employers aren’t required to accommodate employees who use it. Employers can still be held liable for workplace injuries that occur due to an employee’s use of medical marijuana. Federally, marijuana—whether it’s for medical purposes or recreational—is considered an illegal drug, so for any companies required to do federally-mandated drug testing, there is also no accommodating for medical marijuana.
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Pros and cons of implementing a drug testing program
There are several benefits to implementing a drug and alcohol abuse program at your company. These can include:
- A safer workplace for everyone
- Reduced legal liability
- Higher productivity
- Reduced employee turnover
- Reduced absenteeism
The cost of implementing a drug and alcohol testing program varies according to the type of tests, frequency, and the volume of tests conducted at the worksite. For small business owners, the cost of drug testing could be a drawback: A Society for Human Resource Management study pegs the cost at less than $40 per employee. So while a smaller workforce means fewer tests, it also means the cost per test is likely to be higher than for companies with more employees. Keep in mind, however, the cost of drug abuse per employee has been pegged at $10,000 per year according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
In addition to testing costs, legal costs can be incurred to defend the company if workers allege privacy violations or launch unfair dismissal suits. If the costs associated with testing are prohibitive, an alternative to drug testing is launching an employee assistance program that offers counseling and other measures designed to reduce or eliminate substance abuse.
Every company needs a drug and alcohol policy
A drug and alcohol policy should be part of any testing program, but it’s also a good alternative to testing. Involve your employees in the creation of your policy and to get legal advice, particularly with respect to any punitive actions. Your policy should include:
- Definitions of substance use, abuse and impairment
- Descriptions of who the policy covers
- A statement of employee confidentiality rights
- Employee education provisions
- Training provisions for employees and supervisors
- A statement regarding drug and alcohol testing (if planned)
- Provisions for disciplinary actions
Promote your policy among existing employees in employee communications with workplace advertising and during staff meetings. New hires should be made fully aware of the policy via welcome packages and during the onboarding process. Don’t shy from continually advertising the existence of the policy and its components through chunked sound bites delivered to employees as part of a safety or worker health education process or through additional advertising.
Let’s face it, workplace drug and alcohol testing isn’t for everyone. But for employers seeking to protect both their assets and employees, it’s a smart option when it’s well designed and carefully implemented.
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