Unfortunately, in today's society, there is a time and a place for work-force drug testing.
The problem, however, is striking the right balance between on-the-job safety, the expense of testing programs and employee privacy.
As senior reporter Joseph Pryweller reported in our Drugs in the Workplace special report June 18, many small companies (including processors and toolmakers) don't have any drug testing policy at all. One source called the situation “the dirty little secret in the plastics industry.”
Companies that lack any testing policy are foolhardy. At the very least, employers must be prepared to test workers who are injured or who hurt others on the job. Otherwise, firms can find themselves liable for monetary damages in cases where workers contribute to a mishap by being under the influence of drugs or alcohol.
Other uses of testing start to run into privacy and cost issues. Many companies, for example, test job applicants prior to hiring. They feel testing is worth the expense (typically $22-$40 for a urine test) because it can save money down the road by avoiding problem employees.
But test results aren't perfect, and applicants with a substance-abuse problem know they should dry out prior to a job interview. Also, if potential hires do test positive, does that mean you should automatically take a pass on hiring them, regardless of their experience? If so, why? If there are no red flags in an applicant's work history, should that be disregarded because of the result of one drug test?
That's not an easy question to answer. Imagine, for example, that you were that job applicant, and that your test shows a false positive result. Do you still feel testing is fair?
Next, consider random drug testing. In some jobs — airline pilots, school bus drivers — random testing helps to reduce accidents and reassure a nervous public. Beyond that, though, the expense and red tape can start to get problematic.
Drug testing got a ton of attention a decade or two ago, as companies that specialized in testing suddenly sprung up around the country, clamoring for attention and capitalizing on strong anti-drug sentiment that, frankly, was warranted. Companies were concerned about serious safety and quality problems. Testing, to some degree, was a crutch to help employers take care of those problems.
But employers can't be expected to solve the ills of society. If they were, they'd quickly discover that alcohol, which is legal, is responsible for a lot more problems than illicit drugs. Employers certainly can't be expected to draw the line between use and abuse of alcohol.
Under the right circumstances, employers can help make a difference. Pryweller talked to some companies — especially small, tight-knit firms — that reported success in getting help for workers with abuse problems. Many companies encourage workers to get medical attention (frequently covered by health insurance) without fear of reprisal. Those efforts are admirable.
Drug testing doesn't replace having managers and co-workers who care about employees, and workers willing to take personal responsibility and seek help when it is needed. The value of trained employees, and more importantly, the value of human beings, warrants that companies offer rehabilitation options to workers who need help. And drug testing may help that effort.