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The National Laboratory Certification Program regulates drug and alcohol testing labs to ensure fairness to employees and effectiveness to employers.

When the U.S. Federal Government set about creating drug-free workplaces and transportation in the 1980s – an aftermath of drug use among U.S. soldiers who used drugs in the Vietnam War – laws were established in such a way to ensure both accuracy and fairness.

Fortunately, the two go hand in hand. With greater accuracy in employee drug testing methodologies, as well as in how tests are administered and results are recorded, a greater degree of fairness is ensured for all concerned. If a tested individual is falsely identified by a drug test as a user, it is hugely unfair to that individual as well as the employer. By the same token, if a drug test fails to identify illegal use of a controlled substance by an employee, it can unfairly harm many others: co-workers, the employer, and the public at large – particularly if the substance using individual is operating vehicles or other safety-sensitive equipment.

Drug testing laboratories must meet federal DHHS standards

Ensuring the best methods and controls are placed on contractors to the Federal Workplace Drug Testing Programs (Department of Health and Human Services, or DHHS) is the National Laboratory Certification Program (NLCP). This body certifies drug testing laboratories can receive urine specimens that are then tested to determine the presence of drugs. 

Only laboratories that are on the current list – updated monthly – of DHHS certified facilities can participate in drug testing programs.  Certification is contingent on compliance with the many requirements of Section 503 of Public Law 100-71, including most notably the following:

  • Subpart C, Drug and Specimen Validity Tests– This specifies who may collect urine specimens, the training required of collectors, and information about the designated employee representative that employers need to provide. 
  • Subpart K “Laboratory”– Specific testing alcohol testing details, which are subject to the time constraints of alcohol testing, include where the tests can take place, the types of devices used to conduct an alcohol screening test, plus the proper use and care for findings.

Revisions to the law regarding testing technologies in particular change from time to time, which triggers updates to what is acceptable and the procedural changes (if any) that result.

Laboratories subject to ongoing, rigorous review

The NLCP not only verifies laboratories that are new, but also reviews their procedures, data, and documentation on an ongoing basis. In a single year, the NLCP challenged more than 4,000 proficiency-testing samples (a quality assurance method) and conducted 80 in-person inspections of already certified labs.

The NLCP standards are specifically geared to government-sector employee testing. But private-sector employers commonly regard those certified laboratories as the gold standard for their programs as well.  


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Pre-employment drug testing, post-accident testing and zero-tolerance policies are as effective in small companies as in the Fortune 500.

According to the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), more than half of employers – 57 percent – conduct drug tests on all job candidates. Testing is heavily represented in the Fortune 500; 97 percent of Fortune 500 companies have articulated drug-free workplace policies, and 67 percent of those companies conduct drug-testing of employees, either as a condition of hiring, randomly, or in incident-related situations.

But it’s not just large companies that can benefit from pre-employment drug testing. Any company that demands a certain level of productivity, adherence to safety, and respect for fellow employees should at least consider establishing a drug-free workplace policy that involves employee drug testing.

Why? Consider the benefits:

Substance abuse is inherently counterproductive and destructive to both the employee and the business. By adopting clear and strict guidelines about what is acceptable behavior in the work environment matters as much for the company of one as the company with 100,000 employees.

Employees can be more productive when drug-free. Employers have learned that they can reduce their costs and increase their profits by eliminating the negative effects of problem employees. By utilizing random drug testing in the workplace, as well as being able to screen out unfit applicants with pre-employment drug testing, accidents, poor judgment, and anti-social behavior are reduced.

Requiring post-accident testing can help protect your company. Accidents in the workplace can sometimes lead to serious injuries and expensive workman’s compensation claims, and these claims have the potential to cripple an otherwise thriving company. This type of situation can often lead to extensive and very expensive hospital bills. Such hospital bills, and the possible costs of rehabilitation, can accrue over long periods of time and ultimately cause increases in worker compensation policy and health insurance premiums.

Increase in healthcare premiums? Particularly in smaller workplaces, the illnesses and injuries of a single employee can increase costs to the entire organization. Some employers have no choice but to raise the portion that employees pay for their policies. The negative reactions may include a departure of valued employees.

Equipment/property damage? Along with injuries to workers, there is also the potential for damage to company equipment. This results in an added expense for a loss in production while the equipment is down, as well as the expense of repairing or having to replace the damaged equipment.

Having a drug and alcohol policy in place, and utilizing random drug testing, can substantially minimize all of these risks. The hard and soft cost savings can be substantial.


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A clear and comprehensive drug and alcohol policy at your company protects both employees and employer. A written policy with a clear set of rules is a must.

According to the Council on Alcohol and Drugs, American business owners lose an estimated $160 billion per year due to drug and alcohol use by employees.

Those losses come by various means, including injuries and worker compensation insurance premiums, damaged equipment, lawsuits, lost productivity, and additional healthcare costs.

Fortunately, there are solutions and strategies for minimizing these costs. Companies, big and small, utilize employee drug testing services that help identify potential problems.

But tests should be predicated by a written policy that is provided to and discussed with all current and potential employees. Such a policy would articulate what, why, and how the company chooses to have a drug-free workplace.

Establishing firm ground rules and company practices provides a safe and productive environment for your employees. It also is an excellent preventive measure that will screen out job applicants who know they could not meet such a standard. Having a strong drug and alcohol policy in place lays the foundation, but putting that policy to work in the workplace is critically important as well.

A testing services company can be an invaluable asset in helping establish and communicate a drug free workplace policy. You might also supplement that by providing your key people and supervisors with reasonable suspicion drug and alcohol training. Having key employees and supervisors that are trained to recognize and identify the symptoms and indicators of possible drug and alcohol use will keep your policy active and functioning.

Following are some key points that could be included in a strongly written policy:

  1. Be clear. State an explicit prohibition of drugs or alcohol in the workplace. That includes both possession and use of alcohol, illegal drugs, as well as prescription drugs without a valid prescription. For terminology, know that “drug-free” means you may be forgiving of a first offense; “zero tolerance” means even one infraction can be grounds for termination.
  2. The policy applies to work off-premises. The no-tolerance policy extends to company activities outside of the workplace where an employee is a representative of the company or operating a vehicle or equipment in the performance of company work.
  3. It is a condition of hire. All potential hires are required to comply with and pass pre-employment drug and alcohol testing before becoming an employee.
  4. The rule applies to any time after hire. If your company elects to do so, make it clear that all employees are subject to random drug and alcohol testing at the company’s discretion.
  5. Reasonable suspicion. An employee can be required to submit to drug and alcohol testing when a supervisor has reasonable suspicion that the individual may be under the influence of drugs or alcohol. This might happen when there is unusual or bizarre behavior that suggests the employee might be under the influence of drugs or alcohol. Also, unexplained and continued patterns of tardiness, a pattern of absenteeism, or an unexplained inability to execute and fulfill their job requirements can indicate a need for testing.
  6. Post-accident. That any employee involved in an accident is subject to post-accident drug and alcohol testing, as well as any employee who may have contributed to the accident in any way.
  7. Substance abuse has consequences. Any violations of these rules can result in the suspension or termination of the employee.

A written policy, presented to all employees, is a benefit to them in many respects. It shows that you, the employer, have a vested interest in their personal health and safety. It also ensures non-users that they will not be subject to hazards caused by impaired co-workers. But where the health of the company can affect their continued employment, it can be a tool for winning business contracts, such as with the federal government, which under the conditions of the Drug-Free Workplace Act of 1998 requires most companies seeking contracts to have a drug free workplace policy in place.


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How Does Medical Marijuana Mix With a Drug Free Workplace Policy?

Medical marijuana and workplace prohibitions of off-hours drug use are both legal in California – and in conflict. The courts define how it works (for now).

The prevalence of drug-free workplace policies – about 60 percent of employers nationwide now conduct pre-employment drug screening – has run up against the legalization of medical marijuana, which is now available in a handful of states, including California. So is it possible for someone who is using legally dispensed medical marijuana to be given special dispensation by an employer who routinely prescreen and perform employee drug testing?

Getting to the answer of this question is not easy. Understand that for private employers that are not under large contracts with the state or federal government, the decision to have a drug-free workplace is discretionary. Those employers only need to enforce policies uniformly, regardless of whether they are tolerant or intolerant of off-hours drug usage.

For those employers who maintain a drug-free workplace, the following needs to be considered:

  • Case law upholds testing and terminations – Employers who wish to maintain drug-free workplaces have been sued by employees who use medical marijuana within the terms of California’s Compassionate Use Act of 1996. One case rose through appeals process to the state Supreme Court, which ultimately ruled against that employee. The court majority decided the referendum by which the statute was passed did not force employers to accommodate use of marijuana such that firing the employee did not violate public policy.
  • Safety matters require concern – Employees who work in safety-critical positions have a responsibility to fellow human beings and their employer to operate vehicles, heavy machinery and even such things as information technology with full faculty. Marijuana use, as with alcohol and many types of pharmaceutical medications, is incompatible with those functions.
  • Privacy matters are largely overruled – Initially, all drug testing came under fire from privacy advocates in California. Case law has largely overruled those concerns as well.

At least one organization, the Americans for Safe Access to Marijuana, are lobbying for an expanded application of the medical marijuana law. If they are successful, employers will need to revisit drug testing and terminations of individuals who legitimately qualify for this type of medical treatment.


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Protecting Your Company with a Drug Free Workplace Policy

Since the federal Drug-free Workplace Act of 1990 was implemented, drug use by employees has declined while employers reduced risks.

Over the past two decades, drug-free workplace policies have become the norm in more than 60 percent of medium- to large-sized companies. This is largely attributed to the Drug Free Workplace Act of 1988, which officially affects federal government workplaces and some contractors, however it created a cultural tendency to implement drug testing in private workplaces as well. California’s own Drug-free Workplace Act of 1990 requires contractors and grant recipients in the state to have drug-free workplaces.

Does employee drug testing work? It does to the extent that it can detect recent usage of a controlled substance, such as illegal “street” drugs, as well as prescriptive medications, when the test is administered.

Employers who choose to administer drug tests do so for any or all of the following reasons:

  • Safety – The influence of controlled substances can dangerously impact employees in their work responsibilities, creating a hazard for themselves as well as others. Forklift operators, vehicle operators and all types of construction work are good examples.
  • Productivity – Employees who abuse drugs will often work with sub-optimal cognitive abilities, and may frequently be absent due to illness or fatigue.
  • Workplace theft – Many drugs are expensive and thus drive an employee to seek extra money to purchase those drugs. In healthcare facilities, there is the additional risk of prescriptive medication theft.
  • Liability – An employer whose employee is the cause of mishaps (safety or business errors) may effectively bear heavy costs in a lawsuit.

Note that different drugs behave differently in the body such that some substances leave evidence for weeks and even months after use, while other, equally undesirable drugs leave no trace the body in a matter of days. However, hair samples provide a longer-term recording of drug use.

Privacy and efficacy in employee drug testing

While many people and organizations have raised concerns over privacy rights in employee drug testing, the laws and courts have tended to rule in favor of employers. One indicator of effectiveness is how the National Bureau of Economic Research, a private, non-profit and nonpartisan research organization, studied drug use among servicemen and civilian employees of the U.S. military between 1980 to 1992. During that time, usage rates dropped from 27.6 percent to 3.4 percent.


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How Workplace Supervisors Can Recognize Employees Drug Use

Workplace supervisors are saddled with a dilemma: Stopping drug use by employees while staying within privacy and employment laws. Professional training can help.

It has become commonplace in American companies to have some sort of employee drug testing policy in place. But how those policies are implemented vary by company as well as location, as state privacy and employment laws can differ considerably. This puts workplace supervisors in a difficult position, sometimes, as they may suspect drug use but feel they are restricted in what they can do about it.

Supervisors should receive professional training in how to spot drug or alcohol use on the job. The indicators can be obvious or subtle, and the threat of a lawsuit by an employee needs to be considered. That said, first indicators can include any of the following:

  • Obvious physiological clues – Blurry eyes, slurred speech and erratic behaviors are sometimes signs. However, it would be wrong to mistake a medical emergency such as a stroke for a recreational drug use habit.
  • Performance issues – An inability to meet job expectations, particularly with an employee who has proven competency in the past, can be an indicator. But again, job performance can also be a function of other variables such as a marital breakdown, problems with offspring or an undisclosed but serious medical condition.
  • Falling asleep at work – While long commuting times and medical conditions (such as narcolepsy) can lead to this behavior, it is also consistent with some types of drug and alcohol abuse.

Supervisors who are professionally trained know to look for these and other clues and how to respond appropriately. For example, it would be important for a supervisor to allow the employee to explain a behavior, but to do so in a way that does not violate employee privacy or other employment laws.

While California bans random, warrantless employee drug testing (which is legal in many other states), it is possible to conduct “reasonable suspicion testing.” The trigger for this may be a serious mishap, such as in a safety-critical occupation, or a pattern of behavior that strongly suggests the individual is working under the influence and is a danger to themselves or others.

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