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What Contractors Need to Know About Workplace Drug Screening

Did you know more than 1 in 10 construction workers test positive for illegal drug use?

In fact, the construction industry has the second-highest rate (14 percent) of mind-altering substance use in the country, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Construction workers also have a higher-than-average incidence of alcohol abuse. Needless to say, in an industry in which a lack of mental clarity can lead to serious property damage, injury or even death, this is an alarming trend. 

One way contractors can address this problem is to implement a drug-screening policy for their company. Here are some things to keep in mind as you consider whether to move forward with such a program. 

How effective is drug screening in the construction industry?

A Cornell University study of drug testing in the construction industry indicates that having a screening policy does help to reduce the incidence and adverse effects of drug use on the job. On average, participating companies that had a drug-screening program in place reduced their injury incident rate by 51 percent within two years of implementation. Drug screening also reduced the companies’ workers comp experience modification (an adjustment to the annual workers' comp insurance premium) by 11.4 percent. 

The impact of drug use on workers comp can be significant. Consider these statistics from the “Working Partners” National Conference Proceedings Report

•    38 to 50 percent of workers comp claims are related to substance abuse

•    Substance abusers are 3 to 5 times more likely to file a workers comp claim

•    Substance abusers incur 300 percent higher medical costs than non-abusers

Patrick Crider of Fieldstone Insurance Partners, an independent insurance agency based in Franklin, Tennessee, explains how drug screening affects workers comp payouts: 

“By having [a] drug-free workplace policy in place, there is a shift in the burden of proof,” he says. “If an employee is injured on the job and fails a post-accident drug or alcohol test, it is presumed that drugs and/or alcohol were involved and the work comp claim can be denied.

“Say a company pays $100,000 a year in work comp premium,” he continues. “Say that company experienced a large work comp loss which changed their [experience modification] from a 1.0 to a 1.5. That company would go from paying $100,000 a year in premium to paying $150,000 [$100,000 x 1.5].  They would continue to pay an inflated premium for several years until the claim falls off their experience modification; however, had that same claim been denied because the company had a drug free program in place, they would benefit by having a lower experience modification, which would mean a lower premium.”

What are the benefits of implementing a drug-screening policy? 

In addition to reducing injury rates and workers comp claims, construction companies can realize many other benefits from drug-free workplace implementation. Some of these include: 

•    Insurance premium discounts. Some states mandate reduced premiums for employers who implement a drug-free workplace. Discounts typically range from 4 to 7 percent. Even in states without mandated premium reductions, many insurance companies offer them anyway. Contractors should ask their insurance agents whether they are eligible.

•    Lower absenteeism. Substance abusers are 2.5 times more likely to be absent for eight or more days a year.

•    Increased worker productivity. Substance abusers are one-third less productive on the job.

•    Lower employee turnover. One of the hallmarks of substance abuse is frequently changing jobs. 

•    Company reputation and marketability. Having a drug-free workplace policy in place can be an excellent marketing point, especially for contractors who have people working in customers’ homes.

•    Attracting higher-quality employees. If Company A advertises a drug-free workplace program and Company B, located in the same area, does not have a similar program in place, which company do you think will have an adverse selection in its hiring pool?  

What are the costs involved with drug screening? 

The cost of drug and alcohol screening depends on the frequency and type of testing (urine, saliva or hair) and how far in the past the test goes. While a hair-analysis test to check for alcohol abuse over the past six months can run in the hundreds of dollars, most drug-screening tests are relatively inexpensive, averaging under $50 per test. (For more information on the types of drug testing available to employers, see The Pros and Cons of Drug Screening.)

Drug-screening frequency depends on your policy, but it could be mandatory if you elect to participate in an established government or insurance company program. In addition to the tests themselves, it is a good idea to seek legal help in implementing any drug-screening policy. An attorney can help ensure your company complies with any state or federal restrictions that may apply to your organization. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration website is also a good source of information. 

Another cost that must be factored is the additional employee training that a drug-screening program requires. In Tennessee, for example, there is a yearly application, annual training (1 hour for employees and 2 hours for supervisors) and a few other requirements. 

All employees need to be adequately informed of the policy so they know what to expect and are aware of their rights. It is also very important that supervisors receive training so they can deal with drug-related issues in a fair and objective manner and can document any incidents accurately. 

“Employers can choose to or not to do random testing,” Crider says. “Also, they can test on reasonable suspicion, but that requires even more formalities, and the employer needs to be really careful about not targeting individuals.”  

Finally, be aware that there is a difference between drug screening during a conditional job offer phase and having an actual policy in place. Screening by itself without putting a formal policy in place will not impact your liability. 

Drug screening in the construction workplace

Screening your employees for drug and alcohol use is a decision that must be made in full awareness of the costs involved—financial, ethical and otherwise. For example, should you choose to implement a drug-free policy, expect to see some of your employees protest or even quit. You might experience a period of upheaval for a few months until the policy becomes accepted as the norm in your company.

However, most employers who implement such a program end up appreciating the effects, including higher worker productivity, fewer accidents, reduced insurance costs and lower employee turnover. 

Participants in the Cornell study were overwhelmingly positive about the benefits of workplace drug screening. More than 72 percent of those surveyed believed the benefits of implementing a drug-screening policy outweighed the costs. As you consider this decision for your company, keep the long term in mind.


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