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Drug Testing News

Companies: Hiring workers who are drug-free cuts liability

By Arnold Lindsay

It's the order of the day in just about any corporate setting drug testing.

For Entergy Mississippi, drug testing has been part of the cost of doing business for years because of safety issues, said spokesman Checky Herrington.

It's also standard procedure for other large companies like Nissan North America, which this month began implementing random drug testing at the Canton facility that opened earlier this year.

"They're pretty much standard to the industry," said Tom Groom, Nissan spokesman.

Web sites and literature debating the pros and cons of the drug testing issue show that $1.2 billion is spent annually in the United States on drug testing.

And nearly everyone is dependent on the the tests to help weed out troubled applicants and employees, to reduce a company's liability.

On average, the University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson spends $35,000 each year testing 2,500 employees and job applicants. Part of that commitment is meeting federal Department of Transportation guidelines that require 50 percent of commercial license holders to be tested.

In the event a UMC applicant fails a drug screen, the applicant is told which substance was found and then banned from re-applying for a job the next 12 months. If an employee fails the test prior to seeking substance abuse assistance, the employee is terminated, said Glenda Murriel, an administrative assistant in the Human Resources Department of UMC.

At many workplaces, employees who admit to a substance abuse problem up front and seek assistance are offered rehabilitation. Once sober, most can generally return to their jobs, with stricter supervision.

Entergy's policies show "tough love" in that an employee who tests positive for substance or alcohol abuse on the job is immediately suspended without pay. But the employee is given a chance to remain employed.

"Once someone is suspended, then they are referred to a substance abuse professional. That person is skilled in dealing with drug and alcohol treatment and they will prescribe training and or treatment for the employee. And then a follow-up evaluation occurs with the employee and the substance abuse counselor who recommends if the employee should return to work," Herrington said.

An employee who does return to work gets tested at least six times within the first year.

"And that process can go up to five years," Herrington said.

Like UMC, Entergy Mississippi, the City of Jackson and others bear high costs to comply with the stringent federal requirements, which also require unannounced alcohol breath tests for 10 percent of commercial driver's-license holders.

Entergy has 355 drivers. The company spends on average $10,520 annually on testing.

"Entergy puts a tremendous focus on safety for our employees and our customers. And that's why there's such a major emphasis on drug and alcohol testing," Herrington said. "We also conduct an internal audit annually to ensure that every person we hire is drug free. In the past when hiring was done and an offer was made, the hiring manager might have been in a hurry to get that person on board. They might have waived the drug test. But since the late 80s, we've had this audit in place to make sure no corners were cut."

In fact, drug screening is so prevalent that many who know they'll be asked to give a urine sample or some strands of hair, sometimes call experts for advice on how to make a clean up before they're tested, said Lee Spencer, supervisor in the analytical toxicology laboratory at University of Mississippi Medical Center.

"Basically their question is how to beat a drug screen," Spencer said. "I hesitate to answer."

A variety of substances are sold, especially across the Internet, that promise to help a person pass drug screenings by detoxifying their system.

Among the items advertised are unisex synthetic urine that can be substituted at the time of testing, and liquids that when consumed, lock the substance in the body or force its rapid release through urine.

"What does work is dilution. And laboratories do combat that," Spencer said.

Even so, drug screenings are not an absolute science because the issue remains a complex one, he said.

Other factors that affect whether a person whose test results in a false positive gets a chance to clarify it, depend on the company's policy. Federal law only covers specific groups like commercial driver's-license holders, rail workers and nuclear power plant employees. Mississippi has no state law that deals with how corporations should conduct screenings, Spencer said.

For example, government testing guidelines set the substance level at a point where a trucker who had consumed poppyseed muffins prior to a test would likely not trigger a positive unless he had actually ingested an illegal substance.

And there are other legal questions that industry participants continue to debate, such as passive exposure of substances to hair and urine, Spencer said.

It is possible for a test to reveal marijuana present in a person who has not physically ingested it themselves, "just as there are issues of passive exposure with urine," he said.

"Basically right now, without a state law, you can do what you want, unless you're federally regulated," Spencer said. "The larger companies by and large are going to have their acts together ... the problems are going to come into place where there aren't those checks and balances the mom-and-pop that doesn't have their legals in place like they should."

Dutchie Presley, the city of Jackson's personnel director, said standard policy is consistent there, where up to $37,296 can be spent annually meeting the DOT requirements and satisfying the city's own safety standards.

There is a substance abuse zero tolerance for police officers and firefighters one failed drug test equals dismissal. Certain other positions qualify for counseling and rehabilitation.

Depending on previous work performance, "it could be that that very first time it's a termination," Presley said.

Any second offense warrants immediate termination regardless.

"We don't play," she said.