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What Is Drug Testing?

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Written by Ashley Householder

What is Drug Testing_ (1)

Employers are frequently required to conduct drug testing for their job applicants and employees for a variety of reasons. Drug testing is a common component of a pre-employment background screening program. Many employers will require a drug test of a candidate before extending a job offer. Drug testing programs can include a variety of elements and can be confusing. In addition, each employer may opt for a different type of test. This article will help you understand drug testing in the workplace and help you decide if your company should move forward with drug testing. We will cover various types of drug testing and the substance testing parameters.

What is a drug test? 

A drug test is a way to detect the presence of one or more illegal and/or prescription drugs in someone’s system. Testing can be conducted by gathering samples of urine, blood, oral fluid (saliva), hair, or sweat. There are generally two types of tests used in employment screenings: lab-based and employer self-collected. Lab-based tests require the candidate to go to a clinic to provide a specimen. Employer self-collected tests are an alternative option for employers who conduct a high volume of tests. In these situations, employers can utilize on-site, self-collection options with instant readers to improve the turnaround time of the drug test. 


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Why is drug testing so important? 

Drug testing is important because it allows employers to reduce risk in the workplace as a result of illicit drug use. In addition to testing candidates for pre-employment purposes, employers may want to conduct drug tests for existing employees due to reasonable suspicion, random checking, post-accident supervision, or return-to-work monitoring. If the applicant or employee is in a Department of Transportation (DOT) position, there are regulated tests required by that department to ensure absolute safety in those roles. Furthermore, substance abuse and addiction can lead to poor performance, missed deadlines, and decreased attendance. Unfortunately, substance abuse creates a serious burden on employers. For example:

  • Nearly 21 million Americans currently suffer from a substance use disorder involving alcohol or drugs. (Source: U.S. Surgeon General)
  • On-the-job alcohol abuse can have devastating effects. Analysis of workplace fatalities shows that at least 11% of the victims were under the influence of alcohol. (Source: NCADD)
  • The annual cost of an untreated substance use disorder ranges from $2,600 per employee in agriculture to more than $13,000 per employee in information and communications. (Source: National Safety Council)
  • People with substance use disorders miss nearly 50% more work days than their peers. This can add up to as much as six weeks annually. (Source: National Safety Council)y
  • 14.8 million Americans use illegal drugs, and 70 percent of them are employed. (Source: OHS )

The benefits of having an effective drug testing program in place are significant. One of the biggest benefits is that most states will offer a discount on their workers' compensation insurance when drug testing is being done. Also, through maintaining a drug-free workplace, employers can save money by preventing the types of accidents that are often caused by impaired workers. This will help to keep all employees safe no matter what position they are in while also supporting your bottom line. With the implementation of effective drug testing, a company can identify and potentially remove weak links and safety concerns, thereby improving the company's performance overall. 

What are the different types of drug tests?

Let’s talk about the specimen collected and how to choose which specimen to test. While urine is typically the most common specimen that employers test, oral fluid and hair tests are also becoming more commonly used. Consider the “testing period” (how far back can that specimen test), when identifying your purpose for testing. For urine testing, the period is typically within the last week, so a urine test can determine whether certain drugs were used within the last seven days. However, this does depend on the drug and how much of the drug was used. If you are looking for something to go back as far as 90 days, then you may want to consider hair testing. However, hair testing will not show any recent drug use, only a pattern of recurring use. Oral fluid, by contrast, has a similar look-back window to urine, but it also provides even more immediacy than urine. Oral fluid testing can detect certain drugs as quickly as 30-60 minutes after ingestion. This is all good to keep in mind when considering the reason for the test. For example, if you are sending someone in for a reasonable suspicion test you will not want to have them perform a hair test because that will not show recent drug use. The best option in that case would be urine or oral fluid. The same goes for random testing programs, where the goal is detection of current drug use. 

What is Instant Testing vs. Lab-based Testing?

An instant drug test is exactly what its name implies—you get the results almost instantly, usually within a few minutes. It’s what we call an immunoassay screening; its purpose is to detect any presence of that category of drugs in the specimen. The result is either negative (it’s not present) or non-negative (it is present). An instant drug test can’t officially give a “positive” result. If the instant test shows a non-negative, it will then need to be packaged and sent to a lab for further testing. An instant drug test typically uses urine as the test specimen. The test usually screens for some combination of the following: amphetamine, barbiturates, benzodiazepines, cocaine, marijuana, methadone, methamphetamine, opiates, oxycodone, PCP, and propoxyphene. There are many different instant drug test panels that can be used, but for instant tests you must use preset panels.

For a lab-based test, the collected specimen (urine, hair, oral fluid) is sent to a laboratory for more rigorous testing. The specimen is usually sent overnight to the lab. It does take longer to get the results (2-3 days, on average). A lab-based test can screen for any drug. Before testing, your organization would have already determined which drug or drugs you need to identify. So if you needed a custom drug panel that included a different drug, you would need to arrange that with the lab in advance.

Which drugs should we test for? How much does a drug test cost?

There are many different drug test panels available. These range from the standard 5-10 drug panel to custom panels, as well as panels that exclude certain drugs. The drugs most often tested for include the following:

  • Marijuana
  • Opioids, such as heroin, codeine, oxycodone, morphine, hydrocodone, and fentanyl
  • Amphetamines, including methamphetamine
  • Cocaine
  • Steroids
  • Barbiturates, such as phenobarbital and secobarbital
  • Phencyclidine (PCP)

The employer can select any drug test panel they would like to be tested. If the company has a specific concern about a drug that’s not on any one of those panels, they can customize the panel to include that particular drug as well as the cut-off levels (i.e., the point at which a test is considered positive or negative). 

Always remember: Customization capabilities vary by vendor, and smaller vendors might not be able to meet certain customization needs.

The basic and most common drug test panels used are listed below: 

 

Standard Panels

Drugs Included

Standard Cut Off Levels 

(Initial/Conformation ng/mL)





5 Panel

Amphetamines (includes Methamphetamine)

1000/500

Cocaine

300/150

 

Marijuana (THC)

50/15

 

Opiates (Codeine/Morphine)

2000/2000

 

Phencyclidine (PCP)

25/25

 

7 Panel

All of the above plus:

Barbiturates

300/300

Benzodiazepines

300/300

 

9 Panel

All of the above plus:

Propoxyphene

300/300

Methadone

300/300

 

10 Panel 

All of the above plus:

Methaqualone

300/300

 

The cost of a drug test does vary depending on which drugs are being tested and which type of drug test is being performed. The cost of a urine test is much less than the cost of a hair follicle or blood test. The average cost for a drug test is $40. However the test price can range anywhere from $25 to $100 depending on the type of test, the volume of tests you purchase annually,  and which panel of drugs is being tested. 

How do we get the results? What happens with positives?

All drug testing results will be reported through the drug testing vendor or background screening systems. If the employer does an instant test, then negative results may come back as quickly as 15 minutes. However, there are times when the specimen does need to be sent to the lab for testing. In this case results can take anywhere from 24 hours to 48 hours for negative results and as many as 5 to 7 days for positive results. If the results are positive then a Medical Review Officer (MRO) will review the results and may contact the donor in order to determine whether he or she is currently using any prescription drugs under a doctor’s care. The Medical Review Officer is a licensed physician who is responsible for receiving and reviewing laboratory results generated by an employer's drug testing program and evaluating medical explanations for certain drug test results. The MRO will verify any prescriptions the donor may have and can overturn the drug test results if applicable. 

Tips for creating the best drug testing policy for your company

  1. Discuss and determine your company’s objectives. This will better prepare you and your team for when you sit down to draft the written policy. Remember, the easier it is for you to articulate your objectives, the easier it will be to translate them to the written word. Strive to draft a policy that's clear, comprehensive, and compliant, which leads us to our next point.
  2. Get outside expertise. For the majority of companies, the only way to truly create a compliant program is by working with an outside vendor. This vendor should have legal expertise as well as experience in setting up successful programs. Be sure to work with your legal team and your vendors. 
  3. Make the drug testing policy accessible to everyone. The policy should be physically accessible. Employees should have easy access to it via the company intranet and/or company handbook.
  4. Clearly state the drug test policy. The policy should be relevant to your company. Depending on the size of the organization, you can get as detailed as needed. Remember it's critical that your policy deals with real situations that your employees will likely encounter. Make sure the policy is precise regarding what is allowed and covered in the policy. This is especially important if you have a company that's operating in multiple states with multiple job categories or different job roles. Not to mention you need a solid plan for dealing with the abuse of legal drugs, such as prescription medications. Another great thing to remember to include is a separate section on marijuana, especially if you have any locations in states where it has been legalized. We will have a blog post on this topic coming soon!
  5. Create an FAQ. Anticipate and answer as many questions as possible. Consider all the different scenarios that could come up during the drug testing process and determine what your company's concrete policy decision will be for each scenario.
  6. Revisit the policy and make updates as needed. Laws and circumstances change. Treat your alcohol and drug policy like the living, breathing document that it is, and make sure you review and update it annually, at the very least.

Closing

As the employer, your job is to find the right employees for your company and keep everyone safe within the workplace. You need a background check partner who makes your life easier so you can fulfill your primary role. The great news is that with a little preparation and understanding of drug testing, you will be able to maximize the value of the program for your company. If you would like to learn more about ScoutLogic's drug testing services, just click to access our knowledge base article.

Need help deciding which drug test options are right for your company?

Setting up and administering a drug testing program can be very confusing.  Have a question or need help understanding drug testing? We can assist!  Click below to work with one of our Scouts to provide an assessment of your current program or help you set up a new one.


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ScoutLogic is not a law firm.  You should always check with qualified counsel before you make any changes to your background check program.  If you need a qualified attorney, we would be happy to make a referral for you.



Topics: Background Check 101