Waymon McMackin discovered just why someone would insert a hand between the turning rollers of a film extruder.
Sixteen years ago, a worker at McMackin's Sherman, Texas-based Presco Products Inc. was injured seriously in such an accident. After being sent to an area hospital, the man was given a routine blood test.
He tested positive for marijuana use. That was just the beginning of McMackin's troubles.
The worker ended up suing the company to pay for damages, medical bills and convalescence. Because Presco had no formal substance-abuse policy, it was left with virtually no legal defense.
Workers' compensation premiums rose. And so did the ire of McMackin, owner of the film and sheet extruder.
``If a kid had not gotten hurt, I never would have been angry enough to go through the effort to start our drug and alcohol policy,'' McMackin said. ``But we got dinged, and that's how it came to pass where we are today.''
Presco became an early proponent among plastics processors of a comprehensive substance-abuse program. The poli- cy includes all the highpoints: pre-employment screening, testing upon reasonable suspicion of abuse and urine samples randomly taken from about two employees a week.
The war on drugs and alcohol has not found most small and midsize companies as fertile a battleground. While experts say more than 90 percent of Fortune 500 companies have full-scale testing programs, many smaller companies do not have the time or resources.
Recent figures bear that out. A 1999 study from the Health and Human Services Department shows that about three-quarters of illegal drug users between ages 18-49 work full time. Of those, an overwhelming majority - about 83 percent - work at companies employing 500 or fewer people.
Little more than half of all companies that have 24-499 workers have any type of drug prevention program in place, according to that same study.
Most abusers of drugs and alcohol are not exactly model employees. They were described by the department as typically having worked for three or more employers, to have left an employer voluntarily within a 12-month period and to have missed one or more days of work in a month's period.
``We think that in the plastics industry, these are very specialized skills that may not be easily replaceable,'' said Robert Stephenson, director of workplace programs for Health and Human Services. ``If impairment leads to dangerous accidents, it costs those companies more wasted time and money. And so does liability when a customer's product isn't molded correctly.''
Department of Labor figures show that drug and alcohol abusers are five times more likely than nonabusers to get injured and are 40 percent more likely to injure another employee.
The Labor Department spends about $3 million annually on an awareness campaign - called Working Partners for an Alcohol- and Drug-Free Workplace -and the Small Business Administration is ticketing about $5 million this year in a prevention program. But those amounts are paltry compared with what is needed to help small companies, said Elena Carr, who runs the Working Partners campaign.
``Unless a drug-related incident smacks you in the face and grinds you to a halt, it's easy not to do anything about it,'' said Carr, director of the Labor Department's Office of Policy.
In the plastics industry, the problems can be alarming, said Bill White, a consultant who helps processors set up substance-abuse workplace programs and confront impaired workers.
``The lack of testing is the dirty little secret in the plastics industry,'' said White, president of William Thomas Associates of Danbury, Conn. ``You don't want to be known as a company that has a problem. It's the small to midsize guys who just ignore it.''
None of the major plastics associations make a strong push for corporate drug testing.
``You seldom hear much about it anymore,'' said John Cox, manager of government affairs for the Fort Washington, Md.-based National Tooling & Machining Association.
Plastics News recently faxed an unscientific survey to nearly 1,200 processors inquiring about substance-abuse programs. About 40 percent of the 95 respondents offer no pre-employment screening, while close to half do not test for drugs or alcohol once a worker is hired.
Smaller companies face major hurdles to create such programs. Interviews with 20 processors, both those that do and do not screen for problems, echoed some of those frustrations.
One of those is expense. Basic urine tests typically cost $22-$40 each, according to federal figures. If a worker or job candidate tests positive, a second test at an area hospital or clinic can more than double that price.
The time investment for a smaller company also must be considered, said Jon McClure, president and chief executive officer of film manufacturer ISO Poly Films Inc. of Gray Court, S.C.
The 32-employee company does not have a formal program. Instead, ISO attempts to reach each employee individually, McClure said.
``That's the beauty of a smaller business,'' McClure said. ``You're basically able to know everyone by name and a little bit about each person and their family. Our team takes care of the weak ones internally.''
Other companies believe a less-rigid policy that still promotes a safe working environment is the answer. At thermoformer Arrem Plastics Inc. of Addison, Ill., potential workers undergo pre-employment screening. Once on the job, it is up to the worker or a supervisor to come forward before action is taken, said President Dale Muhlethaler.
``If someone is not behaving normally or we smell something ferocious on their breath, we send them to a clinic or home,'' Muhlethaler said.
Arrem fits with a majority of companies that pre-screen job prospects but do not follow up with random or probable-cause testing once a worker is hired, said Dee Mason, president of consulting firm Working Partners/Business Against Substance Abuse Coalition.
Mason termed pre-employment screening a ``necessary idiot'' test; some regular users will bypass a company that screens for abuse. But others will abstain only long enough to get hired and then start the habit again, she said.
But employee turnover worries other companies. When Central Plastics Inc. started its comprehensive program four years ago, several workers immediately walked off the job and others left soon after that, said President Dennis Houghton of the McPherson, Kan.-based extruder.
In a tight job market, Houghton briefly wondered if testing was worth the trouble. But after the first year, the number of employees who resigned dwindled. Houghton said he was left with a safer work environment and lower workers' compensation rates.
``The initial feeling among some people was to question what liberties or freedoms were we taking away,'' Houghton said of his 140-person company. ``It takes awhile to sink in that this is good for everyone.''
A morass of rules and hoops to jump through also can be daunting. For instance, employers cannot test a pre-employment job candidate for drunkenness because alcohol is a legal substance.
Once hired, supervisors must be trained to look for suspicious behavior. And a policy must spell out how testing is done, whether a test is to be certified by an outside laboratory, what the cutoff levels are for positive tests and what to do with employees if they test positive.
And before employees are terminated, the policy must decide how many chances they receive to get treatment and mend their ways, Mason said.
``Very few things in this are dead-bang black or white,'' she said. ``But you can be hogtied or hampered by litigation if it isn't done right.''
Blow molder B&D Molded Prod- ucts Inc. of Shelton, Conn., knows that. An ex-employee sued the firm after he was fired in the wake of a plant accident. In that case, the worker's suit immediately was thrown out of court, said B&D President Thomas Outlaw.
``It's not an everyday occurrence, especially where we're located,'' said Outlaw. ``But other times, when we've dumped the garbage, we've found vials holding crack [cocaine].''
Other companies have crafted thorough programs. Yet, the specter of litigation frustrates some that want to help employees and still keep a productive work force.
``If an employee injures himself, it has to be part of our policy or we cannot test,'' said Raymond Wenk Sr., president of injection molder Matrix IV Inc. of Woodstock, Ill. ``If we don't hire a person based on a test, it can be called discriminatory. If we send employees to a local hospital for a test, they have the right to refuse it.
``I wish we had a simpler formula without first having to check with legal authorities for our rights every time we test.''
Random testing, which some experts call the best way to stop abuse, also makes some companies squeamish.
Those that do random testing, such as extruder Allwire Inc. of Fresno, Calif., must go overboard to be even-handed about it, according to Mark Vanderwoude, Allwire vice president of manufacturing .
At Allwire, everyone from the janitor to the chief executive officer is subject to random tests, he said.
``You can't hold a bingo game to decide who gets tested today,'' he said.
``And you can't pick a group or department to decide who gets tested. I am the only one here that knows about it, and I have to make it a total surprise to everyone.''
Ultimately, the issue can be a sticky wicket, especially at first. But without testing, the workplace cannot be safe, said President Bill Coleman of extruder Vinylplex Inc.
Two years ago, Coleman started a substance-abuse program at the Pittsburg, Kan.-based extruder.
The company tests before hiring, after accidents and in cases of probable cause. It works with a local hospital for treatment of those testing positive the first time.
The costs - about $25 a test - are paid back in peace of mind, Coleman said.
``You can ignore it if you're not turning over a lot of employees,'' he said.
``But that's a mistake. One accident will cost a lot more than a drug test.''