How to Implement an Effective Drug Testing Program

contributed by Safety Management Group
by Jordan Hollingsworth, MS, ASP, CHST, CHSP, CRIS®, Safety Advisor, Design and Construction

Impaired employees are a danger to themselves and everyone else on your jobsite. Drug and alcohol abuse are frequent factors in workplace injuries, and often, the impaired employee isn’t the only one who comes away with an injury. Even when accidents don’t occur, employees who are working while under the influence of alcohol or other substances aren’t at their best. Their productivity is likely to be lower, and they’re more likely to make mistakes that can impact your organization’s reputation for quality.

That’s why a growing number of companies have implemented substance abuse testing programs. However, there’s a big difference between simply having any program and having a program that is effective at serving the needs of both employer and employee.

In this article, we’ll review the key steps involved in implementing an effective drug testing program. If your organization already has a program in the place, you can compare it to the best practices outlined here to see if there are opportunities to improve its effectiveness.

Start with federal requirements

If workers in your industry are already required to be tested under federal or local laws, those requirements are the best place to start. The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) has developed an excellent standard for employee testing program that is spelled out in 49 CFR Part 40.

If your employees are unionized, it’s likely that their union will already have an excellent program in place. Most unions recognized early on that requiring drug testing programs for their members offered another way to present those members as a superior choice for employers and strengthen the unions’ reputations.

Training is critical

For a substance abuse testing program to be successful, it must be well-understood by workers and those who supervise them. Overall responsibility for training should rest with a manager, who becomes known as the Designated Employer Representative (DER). Within most organizations, this responsibility is typically assigned to either the human resources manager or the safety manager.

It’s up to the DER to make sure that the organization is providing adequate training to employees and those who are in supervisory roles. To be able to serve in that role, the DER must first be trained in all aspects of the substance abuse testing program. Effective training program for DERs should address:

  • The roles and responsibilities of the DER
  • An overview of 49 CFR Part 40’s requirements
  • How random testing should work
  • What to do with results and how to address confidentiality
  • Potential problems that may occur
  • The role of pre-employment testing
  • How to handle post-accident testing
  • Record keeping requirements, and
  • Auditing the program’s effectiveness.

If you’re working with an occupational clinic or a local drug testing agency, they may have already developed a DER training program. Many of these organizations will provide that training free of charge or for a small fee. In addition to providing clear information and guidance for your program, training will help you ensure compliance and provide protection where liability is concerned.

Train supervisors, too

In addition to training your DER, it’s important to ensure that all of your supervisors have a clear understanding of how your substance abuse testing program works. Typically known as Substance Abuse Supervisor Training, this type of program gives your supervisors the knowledge they need to identify behaviors that are typically associated with drug and alcohol use. Supervisors need to learn what constitutes reasonable suspicion, how to properly document their observations to meet legal needs, and how to go about confronting employees who appear to have a substance abuse problem.

Under the DOT requirements, each employer is required to have a sufficient number of supervisors who have received this training. Rather than simply comply with the minimum requirements, it makes sense to provide this training to all supervisory-level personnel who have direct contact with employees each day. Sharing this knowledge will improve everyone’s ability to identify employees with problems and ensure consistent responses across the organization.

The DOT requirements call for one-time training. However, it’s a good idea to repeat the training to ensure that supervisors remain familiar with the details of the program, and to provide the opportunity to learn about any changes in policies, procedures, and the underlying laws. Requiring such training every three years will be sufficient for most organizations.

Types of testing

Most effective substance abuse testing programs actually include four different types of testing.

Pre-employment testing is self-explanatory: employees are required to obtain a test after being hired and before their start date.

Random testing is at the heart of any program to detect substance abuse. All employees need to undergo at least one “random” selection annually in addition to any other pre-employment or ongoing test they receive. Random tests should be held at least once a quarter and involve a significant number of employees. The selection process and timing must be absolutely secret and completed controlled by the DER to ensure that employees don’t receive any warnings. As soon as supervisors receive notification of which employees are to be tested, those tests should occur. Employees who are being tested should not be able to leave the premises until the test is performed. That’s important, because they can be quite creative when it comes to reasons they must leave work immediately. Since a test takes just a few minutes, waiting will not create an unreasonable delay.

Annual testing may seem to be unnecessary given the existence of random and post-event testing, but it offers tremendous value as a deterrent. We’re all human, with human faults such as being subjected to pressure from friends and peers. An employee who is tempted to make a mistake with drugs or alcohol will be less likely to do so when he or she remembers the testing program. Depending on the organization’s needs, this “refresher” type of testing could take place more often than annually.

What happens when an employee tests positive?

Regular testing without clearly defined consequences sets the stage for a program that will either be unfair, or that will be perceived as unfair by your employees. Your program should clearly define what happens to employees who produce a positive test result.

In some organizations, a single positive test is cause for immediate termination. Others may prefer an initial warning or suspension with a follow-up test within a certain interval. Still others may allow employees to remain with the organization only if they agree to participate in an employee assistance program (EAP).

No single answer or approach is right for every organization. You have to identify the approach that’s consistent with your organization’s human resources philosophies, safety expectations, and any regulatory requirements. Whatever approach you do choose, be sure to apply it fairly and consistently.

Keeping good records

A key element of any effective drug testing program is good record keeping. In addition to making it easier to track (and trend) employee information, good records will help you in the event an employee attempts to fight your testing program in court or with the local unemployment office.

Unions that have established substance abuse testing programs usually have excellent record keeping. Another option that’s an excellent choice is to outsource the record keeping to the laboratory that runs your testing program for you. Most will offer that as part of their services. The best record keeping systems allow you to access the information online, so you can check to see when employees have been tested.

How well is your program working?

Your substance abuse testing policy may be a smooth-running machine, but that doesn’t make it an effective program. You need to be sure that every employee is being tested, and that all the procedures are being followed properly.

While it might seem time-consuming, an excellent practice is to take one day each month to audit the list of employees and see when they were last tested. That’s especially important if you have employees are working on multiple jobsites. You want to make sure that nobody has slipped through the cracks.

Build upon success

Anyone can create a substance abuse testing policy from scratch, but as with so many other aspects of employee relations and safety management, it makes a lot more sense to base your program on what already works for other organizations. Following the guidelines outlined here will give you a program that achieve your objectives and give you confidence in the results.

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