Everything You Need to Know About Employment Drug Tests

Employment Drug Tests

Finding the best candidates for your company to hire can be a lengthy, multi-step process from search to signing of the employment contract. In between, promising candidates might be subjected to criminal and background checks, reference checks, and other forms of identity verification, legal status, and suitability for the position. 

Drug testing in the workplace became common after it became a requirement for federal employees in 1986. By some estimates, about 40% of workers in the U.S. today are required to drug test for a job. 

The laws and regulations guiding employment drug testing differ by state, especially regarding the legal status of medical and recreational cannabis. Depending on your industry, your policies may also be regulated by the United States Department of Transportation (DOT), the Drug-Free Workplace Act of 1988, and specific state case law. All workplace drug policies must comply with all applicable local, state, and federal laws. This can complicate the matter if you are a multistate employer.

What is a pre-employment drug test?

Many employers use a pre-employment drug test to determine if a candidate abuses prescription medications or has used illicit substances. Most of those make their employment contingent on negative results.

Some of the industries most likely to require a drug screening test for employment include:

  • Aerospace and defense
  • Biotech and pharmaceuticals
  • Education 
  • Government
  • Health care
  • Manufacturing
  • Private security
  • Transportation and logistics

The substances most often tested for include:

  • Amphetamines
  • Cannabis
  • Cocaine
  • Opiates 
  • Phencyclidine

Some companies also test for:

  • Barbiturates
  • Benzodiazepines
  • Ethanol (alcohol)
  • Hydrocodone
  • MDMA
  • Methadone
  • Methaqualone

Drug testing specimen types

There are several types of specimen tests, each with a different detection window and ease of testing. Urine tests are most common. Tests can be done onsite or in a certified laboratory. Either way, it’s critical to maintain the chain of custody for each specimen from collection until disposal.

Urine tests

The most common pre-employment drug test is the urine test. Urine can indicate if a person has used illicit drugs in a 5-10 day window, making it the shortest detection window of all drug tests. Urine tests commonly screen for alcohol, amphetamines, benzodiazepines, opiates, cocaine, and cannabis. 

Hair tests

Hair tests detect drug use up to three months in the past but don’t detect alcohol use. Hair tests commonly screen for cocaine, phencyclidine (PCP), amphetamines, opioids, and MDMA.

Saliva tests

Saliva tests have a short window of detection – 7-21 hours. They are convenient for onsite testing and less likely than urine to be tampered with because the test administrator can observe the entire process. Saliva tests commonly screen for alcohol, amphetamine, cocaine, cannabis, methamphetamine, opiates, and phencyclidine (PCP).

Breath alcohol tests

Breathalyzers display the blood alcohol content at the time of the test and are helpful when there is suspicion that an employee is currently impaired.

Blood screens

Blood screens are accurate but invasive, expensive, and have a detection window lasting only a few hours. They detect the substances and amounts of those substances at the time of the blood draw. Blood tests screen for many more substances than other methods, including alcohol, amphetamines, barbiturates, benzodiazepines, buprenorphine, cannabis, carisoprodol, cocaine, fentanyl, gabapentin, opiates, oxycodone, meperidine, methadone, phencyclidine (PCP), and tramadol.

Why employers should require pre-employment drug testing?

Drug screening for employment is part of a comprehensive drug-free workplace initiative. Identifying illicit drug users before bringing them on board has several benefits for your company. Pre-employment drug testing can help you maintain a safe, productive workplace and avoid the many complications and expenses resulting from employee drug use. It can also help you stay compliant with industry regulations. 

Pre-employment drug testing can also act as a deterrent, although a negative test doesn’t guarantee that any candidate never has or never will use drugs.

Why is Drug Screening Important?

According to 2020 National Survey on Drug Use and Health Annual National Report, over 59 million people over the age of twelve used illicit drugs in the previous year. About 70% of adults who use illicit drugs are employed, but at a cost to their employers in:  

  • Absenteeism 
  • Fatalities 
  • Injuries
  • Increase in health care costs
  • Legal liabilities
  • Lost productivity 
  • Low employee morale
  • Workers’ compensation claims 
  • Workplace theft

Drug and alcohol abuse can cause other workplace problems like:

  • High employee turnover
  • Illegal activities at work
  • Impaired job performance
  • Increased risk of conflict
  • Sleeping on the job
  • Poor attention and concentration
  • Poor decision making
  • Tardiness, lost hours

Clearly, substance use has far-reaching implications for hiring, productivity, and operating costs.

How to Conduct a Pre-Employment Drug Test

It’s important to understand your state and federal laws and regulations about drug testing in order to ensure your company’s compliance. Your policies and procedures should be in writing under the guidance of legal counsel. Consider taking the following steps:

  1. Put your policy in writing.
  2. Provide the applicants and/or employees notice of intent to conduct drug testing.
  3. Obtain written consent from the candidate or employee.
  4. Determine a testing site.
  5. Establish the chain of custody of the sample, beginning with a form the candidate or employee must take to the testing site with them.
  6. Administer the test.
  7. Perform a medical review of the results.
  8. Provide results to the candidate or employee.
  9. Take action, if needed.

Not that rescinding a job offer based on a drug test may violate the Americans with Disabilities Act if the person takes certain drugs prescribed for a covered disability. You can avoid issues by giving applicants the opportunity to respond to or challenge test results.

Pre-employment drug tests are a common part of the hiring process today and an important step in protecting your workplace and employees. With careful and thoughtful preparation and execution, your company can devise a policy that helps you find the right candidates for your workplace.