Drug Testing – Occupational Safety

Drug Testing & Safety: What’s the Connection?

By Joe Reilly

This article originally appeared in the September 2014 issue of Occupational Health & Safety

Born some 30 years ago, drug testing in the workplace connects to occupational safety as a key component towards protecting the safety, health and welfare of people engaged in work or employment as well as the general public.  Drug testing programs can contribute to the reduction of employee injury and illness related costs, including medical care, sick leave and disability benefit costs.

A survey of human resource professionals recorded that companies with high workers’ compensation incidence rates (more then 6%) reported a drop from 14% to 6% after implementing drug testing programs, an improvement of 57%.  This survey from March 2011 was conducted by the Drug & Alcohol Testing Industry Association (DATIA merged with NDASA in 2023) and the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM).

The 2012 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) an annual survey sponsored by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) reported an estimated 23.9 million Americans aged 12 or older were current (past month) illicit drug users.  This estimate represents 9.2 percent of the population aged 12 or older.  8.9 percent of those employed full time reported use of illicit drugs, drug use is prevalent in our workplaces.

Drug testing programs provide a powerful deterrent to drug use on the job.  Employers not drug testing will have more drug users employed then employers with drug testing programs and those employers not drug testing will experience more accidents and more workers compensation claims.  Employers who are drug testing are committed to reducing occupational injuries and illnesses and to sending a clear signal they care about their employees. 

It is important to distinguish between drug testing and drug testing programs, a comprehensive drug testing program or drug free workplace will include several additional components which will contribute to helping to improve safety while reducing OSHA recordables, injuries and worker’s compensation claims.  These drug free workplace components are critical to a successful program designed to be an effective part of a workplace safety plan.

Drug Free Workplace Components

  • A written policy – A written policy is the foundation of a drug-free workplace.  Every organization’s policy should be tailored to meet its specific needs; however, all effective policies have some aspects in common, including why the policy is being implemented, a clear description of prohibited behaviors, and an explanation of the consequences for violating the policy.  Executive management and line supervisors must be aware of the substance abuse policy and be committed to enforcement, otherwise the policy will not produce the results it is designed to produce.  Many employers fail to maintain their own policies and thus also face significant exposure to liability.
  • Access to assistance – Employees are made aware of and receive education about the policy, responsibilities, consequences, alcohol and drug information, their rights, and the resources available to them through the company and community if they (or one of their family members) need help.  Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) are worksite programs that provide problem identification, assessment and referral services for employees. At a minimum, businesses should maintain a resource file from which employees can access information about community-based resources, treatment programs and helplines.
  • Employee education – A drug and alcohol education program provides employees with information they need to cooperate with and benefit from a drug-free workplace program.  Effective employee education programs provide company-specific information, such as the details of the company’s policy, as well as general information about the nature of addiction; its impact on work performance, health and personal life; and help available for related problems.  All employees should participate, and the message should be delivered on an ongoing basis through a variety of means.
    • Supervisor training – Supervisors need to be trained in their role within the company’s substance abuse program. They should receive training about the impact of alcohol and drugs on the workplace; how to recognizedocument and confront a possible substance abuse problem; the company policy and procedures; how to refer a troubled employee to available resources and/or testing; and how to support an employee returning from treatment.
    • Drug testing – Employers must consider certain factors, such as who will be tested, which drugs will be tested for and when and how tests will be conducted.  They must also be familiar with any state and Federal laws (such as the Department of Transportation’s drug- and alcohol-testing regulations for employees in safety-sensitive positions) or collective bargaining agreements that may impact when, where and how testing is performed. 

Employers will typically conduct drug testing for pre-employment but often overlook other important drug testing types of drug testing including random, reasonable suspicion, post- accident, return to duty and follow up drug testing.  An effective drug testing program will include all of these types. 

Random drug testing is an effective deterrent to employee drug use.   Many employers overlook random drug testing.  A pre-employment test is easy to beat for a drug user, they stop using drugs for a few days, employers with no random testing will never deter drug use for this employee and possibly never detect this employees’ drug use.  Employers not conducting random drug testing are taking a risk towards workplace accidents and other detrimental effects of maintaining a substance user on the payroll.

Reasonable suspicion drug testing is a critical safety measure, an employee may be impaired while working and must be taken out of their work position and the drug and/or alcohol test will verify that the employee may have used drugs or alcohol while at work or before coming to work.  Supervisor training is critical to a reasonable suspicion of drug and alcohol testing.  A supervisor who has not had reasonable suspicion supervisor training will rarely confront a suspected drug or alcohol user for a confrontation and drug and alcohol test.  

Although employers do sometimes look at post accident testing as an important part of their program, many times once the accident occurs overlook the need for the post accident drug and alcohol test.  This can dramatically reduce the return on investment on a drug testing program. Post-Accident drug testing is an effective way to send a strong, zero-tolerance message to employees, reduce an employer’s liability for drug-related workplace accidents and reduce an employer’s claims experience and exposure.  In many States a positive post-accident drug or alcohol test can lead to denial or reduction of workers’ compensation benefits; this is typically referred to as the intoxication defense.  The intoxication defense can be asserted in a workers compensation claim if there is evidence that the employee was intoxicated at the time of the accident, and if that intoxication “contributed” to the cause of the accident. The intoxication defense begins with a positive drug or alcohol test result. 

Return to duty and Follow Up drug testing are conducted on employees returning to work after a previous positive drug test or self-admission to a substance abuse program and after a treatment program.  These employees must be monitored for deterrence and detection of future drug use or alcohol abuse.

Traditional drug testing programs have evolved over the years.  Many are familiar with the standard five panel drug test which includes testing for marijuana, amphetamines, phencyclidine (PCP), cocaine, and opiates.  Drug users are aware of this testing and many have moved on to other drugs typically not detected.  Unfortunately Department of Transportation (DOT) regulated drug testing programs allow only the five panel drug test.  However, employers not regulated by DOT should look at expanded testing panels.  Company policies should be reviewed and updated to include additional drugs such as prescription opioid painkillers (such as hydrocodone, hydromorphone, and oxycodone), antidepressants (i.e., benzodiazepines) and others including Methamphetamine, Methadone, Barbiturates, Propoxyphene, Synthetic cannabinoids (K2Spice) and bath salts.

Other changes in drug testing include the specimen types, many programs now test with oral fluid or hair as opposed to urine.  DOT regulated programs still require a urine test and State laws should be reviewed before starting any drug testing program, the particular differences between urine, hair and oral fluid are typically based on detection times.   Detection times vary depending on many factors, including drug potency, tolerance, fluid intake at time of test, method and frequency of marijuana use, body type, metabolism, exercise frequency and many others.  Oral fluid testing has the shortest detection time around 1 – 3 days, urine at 2 – 5 days (sometimes longer for marijuana) and up to 90 days for hair testing.

As an employer are you taking every step necessary to provide a safe workplace.  An employee who works under the influence of drugs or alcohol at work poses a serious safety risk to himself and those around him. Drug testing programs connect to safety. As an employer, you have both a right and an obligation to maintain a safe and healthy work environment. Enacting a clear drug testing policy to eliminate workplace substance abuse is an important step toward maintaining a safe work environment.


Joe Reilly entered the world of drug testing in 1993, he is well known throughout the industry and considered a leading expert on workplace drug testing issues. Joe served for nine years on the Board of Directors of the Drug & Alcohol Testing Industry Association (DATIA merged with NDASA in 2023) and served as Chairman of the Board from 2004–2008. Joe is currently a Regional Certified Professional Collector Trainer (RCPCT) for DATIA and is available for DATIA Certified Professional Collector (CPS) training in all areas of Florida. Serving once again on the DATIA Board as of May 2014, Joe is extremely active in assisting employers with drug free workplace programs.   

Drug Testing - Occupational Safety
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