Workplace Drug Screening Opinion Case Study

Drug Testing in the Workplace

Most employers in the United States are not required to do drug testing on either current or potential employees, although the majority have the right to do so (United States Department of Labor, 2010). Drug testing is not required under the Drug-Free Workplace Act of 1988. The Act can be confusing and challenging for employers, however, since it essentially states that any organization receiving federal grants or contracts must be drug-free but does not contain language that specifically allows for drug testing (Thompson Reuters 2011). Many state and local governments limit or prohibit drug testing unless required for certain jobs with state or Federal governments.

As far back as 1997, the American Civil Liberties Union was deploring the use of drug testing in the workplace, citing an increase of 277% over a ten-year period (American Civil Liberties Union, 1997). Drug testing remains a controversial issue and one’s viewpoint often depends on whether one is an employer or an employee.

Individuals who are not drug users may give little thought to drug testing in the workplace. It is not an issue they can ignore. According to a study several years ago by the U.S. Department of Labor, more than eight million Americans use some type of illegal substance. As many as seventy-three percent of illicit drug users were reported to be employed (Smith, 2004, p. 45). It is difficult to find statistics since there is no mandatory reporting, but one can probably assume that these numbers have not changed much in the intervening years. It was likely then and now that many of the employed drug users worked for small firms that cannot afford to do drug testing or believe they do not need it.

Drug testing measures the amount of substance at the time of testing, although some tests can detect use within a particular historical “testing window.” Blood tests measure the amount of alcohol or other drugs present in a person at the time of the test. Results are accurate and considered more reliable than urine tests (Department of Labor, 2010). Since the late 1990s, there have been considerable developments in the use of oral fluid (saliva) for drug testing. The saliva tests can detect drugs from cannabis to heroin. Concentrations of amphetamines, cocaine and some opiates are higher in saliva than they are in blood plasma (Drummer, 2006), making saliva testing more accurate and reliable. Drugs tend to move quickly through the blood and into the urine. Urine testing is effective for drugs, but not as effective for alcohol, which tends to pass quickly through the system. It is important to remember that urine testing shows the presence or absence of drug metabolites in the urine, which are the residues that remain after a drug has worn off. Thus, a positive test does not necessarily mean a person was under the influence of drugs at the time of the test, but does show if drugs were used within a certain window (U.S. Department of Labor, 2010). Hair samples provide an even bigger testing window — they can show drug use within a period of ninety days — but, like the urine tests, hair sample tests do not show that a person is under the influence but only that drugs have been used. Sweat tests are administered through patches that are worn on the skin for some time. They are thus not effective in determining whether an individual is currently under the influence, but they are useful for checking compliance with probation and parole (U.S. Department of Labor, 2010).

Drug testing is often mandatory when safety issues are involved. For example, the U.S. Department of Transportation has regulations that require drug testing of more than eight million different employees, such as truck drivers (Thompson Reuters, 2011). It is not just safety in the workplace that is the concern, but a matter of public safety The state of Alaska has no mandatory drug-testing laws, but employers can choose to test and must follow strict guidelines if they do so Employers must test fairly, unobtrusively, and with the consent of the employee. If an employer is going to test employees, then all employees must be tested. The decision to test cannot be made based on an employee’s appearance or demeanor. Tests must be done unobtrusively, in a way that protects the employee’s privacy. If a urine test is to be administered, for example, the employee should be allowed privacy and the test administered by a laboratory, unless there is strong reason to believe that an employee might tamper with the sample to hide positive results. Since urine testing gives accurate results for up to five days preceding the test, many employers opt for testing hair samples, which can show drug use for up to three months prior. However, employees must voluntarily provide the hair sample. An employer cannot pick up stray hairs left in a chair during an interview, for example, and send them for testing (Thompson Reuters, 2011).

The Department of Labor states that education is an important part of a drug-free workplace. It provides on its website a program employers can use to conduct the training within their organizations. The program covers topics such as workplace impact, understanding addiction, signs and symptoms, family and coworker impact, assistance, and specific drugs of abuse. Employees receive a copy of the organization’s drug-free policy and often sign a receipt that they have received it. It affords the employer protection in the event drug use is found. Employers have specific grounds for dismissal, if they choose, when policy is clearly articulated beforehand and employees agree.

If employers choose to implement an education program, then it must be for all employees. Employers cannot target specific groups based on education, background or appearance, although they can group employers based on job title when job performance and safety are issues, such as bus drivers or machine operators. This makes sense, as it provides protection for the individual as well as anyone around them who is affected by what they do..

Drug testing and education in the workplace are complicated issues. Employers’ actions depend on the laws of the state in which they do business as well as the size and type of organization. Laws exist to protect the privacy of individuals, so employers must be careful in their administration of testing and education programs, being certain that everyone is treated equitably.


Drug-free workplace policy builder. Section 7: Drug testing. (2010). U.S. Department of Labor.

Retrieved from

Drummer, O.H. (2006). Drug testing in oral fluid. Clinical Biochemist Reviews 27(30), pp. 147-

Privacy in America: Workplace drug testing. (1997). American Civil Liberties Union.

Retrieved from

Smith, S. (2004). What every employer should know about drug testing in the workplace.

Occupational Hazards 66(8), pp. 45-47.

Thompson Reuters. (2011). Drug testing during hiring. FindLaw. Retrieved from

Workplace drug testing. (2010). U.S. Department of Labor. Retrieved from

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