He was a good, solid worker, always on the job -- until he
suddenly backed his truck over a 4-inch gas line. If the line
had ruptured, there would have been a serious explosion,
according to the driver's employer.
The accident raised a red flag, Greg DeLapp, senior employee
relations specialist at Carpenter Technology Corp. in Reading,
Pa., told APBnews.com.
Under the company's standard policy, the employee was tested
for drugs and alcohol. He was positive for both.
While there are signs drug use by employees has declined
substantially over the last decade, the problem remains
significant for Carpenter Technology and other employers
Workplace Policies 'Matter'
According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services
Administration (SAMSHA), the overall rate of current drug use
by employees aged 18 to 49 dropped from 17.5 percent in 1985
to 7.7 percent in 1997.
"We see the largest decreases in employees using drugs in
companies that are testing on a regular basis," said Barry
Sample, director of forensic toxicology at Quest Diagnostics.
The Teterboro, N.J.-based company is a leading contractor for
workplace drug testing.
While it's unclear what factors have contributed to the
downward trend in employee drug use, workplace policies
"matter a great deal," said Dr. J. Westley Clark, director of
SAMSHA's Center for Drug Abuse Prevention.
Companies with policies about detection and treatment, he
said, are much less likely to have a drug problem, and large
companies are increasingly adopting such procedures.
Still, SAMSHA's own data suggest that nearly 73 percent of all
illegal drug users in the United States are employed -- 6.7
million are full-time workers, 1.6 million work part time.
Big Money Lost:
Employees who used drugs were more likely to have worked for
at least three companies, left a job within the previous year
and skipped a day or more of work in the past week, the SAMSHA
survey found. The most likely drug users were young men who
had not completed high school.
" Workers who use drugs are more unstable, tend to call in
sick more often and are more inclined to have accidents,"
Clark said. It's difficult to pin down how much employee drug
use costs employers in lost productivity, absenteeism,
workers' compensation and other expenditures, he said.
But consider these figures gathered by large corporations:
IBM estimates that it costs $50,000 to terminate an employee
because of drug use.
General Motors calculates that its employee drug-treatment
program saves $37 million a year in lost productivity.
United Airlines says it gets back $16.95 in higher
productivity for every dollar invested in employee
Drug Testing a Hard Sell:
Nonetheless, drug detection and treatment programs can be a
hard sell in this booming economy, with employers finding it
difficult to get all the workers they need, Clark
"In a low-unemployment market, management may be loath to
point the finger of suspicion at workers. All these issues
cost money. But having employees who are dysfunctional costs
more money in the long run."
Significant Decrease from 1988:
During the first six months of 1999, 4.7 percent of drug tests
performed by Quest Diagnostics were positive, slightly down
from 4.8 percent for all of 1998, according to the Drug
Testing Index. This report summarizes the results of some 2.8
million workplace drug tests performed between January and
June 1999 by the laboratory.
This represents a significant decrease from 1988, when 13.6
percent of all drug tests were reported as positive. The Drug
Testing Index, which has been issued twice a year since 1988,
is considered a benchmark for national trends by the federal
government and other employers.
Comparing the first half of 1999 with the previous year, among
all positive results, those positive for benzodiazapines were
down (3 percent vs. 3.4 percent of all positives), as were
those positive for cocaine (15.8 percent vs. 17.6 percent) and
opiates (5.2 percent vs. 9.7 percent).
Lemonade, Mountain Dew Used:
But the news isn't all good. Comparing the first half of 1999
with the previous year, among all those testing positive for
drugs, amphetamines were up (4.2 percent vs. 4.0 percent),
along with barbiturates (3.6 vs. 3 percent) and marijuana
(62.9 percent vs. 59.2 percent.
And more people tried to beat the test, too. According to
Quest's Drug Testing Index, cheaters, who tested positive for
substances used to adulterate or dilute their urine specimens,
accounted for 1.7 percent in the first half of 1999, as
compared to 0.63 percent in 1998 overall.
In the first half of 1999, says Quest Diagnostics, 2,400 job
applicants tested positive for adulterants to mask telltale
signs of drug use in the urine, and more than 1,200 others had
substituted water or a yellowish liquid for a valid test
"I've even heard that lemonade and Mountain Dew have been
submitted as samples," Sample said. He adds that labs have
identified -- and countered -- just about all of the cheats.
Testers Thwarting Cheaters:
One trick is to drink lots of water to dilute the
concentration of drug-related substances in the urine. Testers
thwart that tactic by measuring the amount of creatinine in
urine; if levels of this normal byproduct of metabolic
activity are too low, they know the employee is trying to
deliberately confound the results of the test.
Numerous Web sites -- with such unsubtle names as
PassYourDrugTest.com and BeatYourDrugTest.com -- sell
products to help people beat drug tests.
"I've seen a document on one of these Web sites, How To Piss
and Pass," said Sample, who found it to be "one of the more
creative marketing efforts."
Some adulterants are powders or teas that are mixed into
water, said Sample. "You then have to drink more water two to
four hours before your drug test. All you're doing is diluting
your urine, and we can pick that up."
Other concoctions are oxidizing agents, such as nitrites,
which change the chemical composition of the marijuana
metabolite in urine so that the test won't pick up its
presence. These take from four to 24 hours to work based on
the amount of adulterant used, the concentration of marijuana
metabolite in the urine and other factors, Sample said.
The problem is oxidants work "too well," he said. In the first
round of screening -- which separates negative tests from
those needing a closer look -- the compound hasn't had enough
time to work, so the sample will test positive for marijuana
and will be subjected to a second confirmatory round of
testing. But by this time, he explains, "we are no longer able
to then detect the marijuana metabolite in the urine" -- and
the discrepancy between the two results is a tip-off.
" There is a very low chance that the donor will get a
negative drug test," Sample said.
A Helping Hand:
There are some classic warning signs of drug use, Clark said.
Sometimes, they may be as obvious as a worker weaving
unsteadily on the way to the job.
"Very often drug and alcohol problems do not come forward
directly," DeLapp said. "It may be an accident, a call from a
spouse, a call from a credit union or a supervisor, a call
from a peer in the labor group who recognizes that a co-worker
is no longer safe."
In addition to his duties at Carpenter, DeLapp is president of
the Employee Assistance Professionals Association (EAPA). The
organization, based in Arlington, Va., has 7,000 members who
steer workers to treatment programs once a problem is
detected. Drug and alcohol abuse are "part of the core
problems addressed by EAPA," he said.
Tests Should Be High Quality:
His association has no formal position on pre-emptive drug
testing, "but my personal opinion is that it is an avenue that
employers should pursue," DeLapp said.
But with one major condition: "Only the best technology should
be used, for [the] protection of the employer and employee.
Cheap buck-fifty testing will get both you and the worker in
trouble, [because of] a high error rate."
" Drug testing alone is not sufficient," Clark said. "What you
need to have for people with a problem is treatment."
"Well-publicized policies and a genuine offer of assistance
when there is an alcohol or drug problem" make such a program
work, said DeLapp.
Recovery Helped Through Counseling:
"Workers with a problem will try to survive on denial and
manipulation," DeLapp cautioned. Once the problem is detected,
it is "very difficult" to treat.
A substance-abuse problem often requires outpatient counseling
and treatment, said DeLapp, and counseling will continue for
as long as necessary. "Health insurance should pay for
treatment, so that the employee can be encouraged to get
treatment early rather than late," Clark added.
The problem is "very treatable," said DeLapp, "if the employee
has the support of the employer, the union and the family, and
has the health coverage available for the kind of treatment
that is necessary. The employee with that kind of support will
For instance, take the case of DeLapp's colleague at Carpenter
Technology who was abusing both drugs and alcohol: "He was
sent to outpatient counseling and treatment. He did well over
the next 12 or 13 months, had a temporary relapse, and since
then has had eight years of solid recovery," said DeLapp.
Ed Edelson is an APBnews.com correspondent in New York.
New York (APBnews.com)
Published: Fevruary 7, 2000
ęCopyright 2000 APB Online, Inc.