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Drug addiction costs business enterprises and various other organizations in the US about $81 Billion per year. Illicit drug use in the United States is on the rise and more than 70% of all individuals with alcohol or drug problems are employed either full-time or part-time. This is the reason why most companies have now begun instituting workplace drug testing policies.

After all, a sober, addiction-free workforce is a more productive workforce, and in cases of workers operating heavy-machinery such as cranes, construction equipment, and forklifts or buses and trucks, a safer workforce too.

But when do companies screen job applicants and employees for drug abuse? What are some of the most important things employers should know before conducting drug tests on their employees?

When drug screening is a part of the hiring process, it’s referred to as pre-employment drug testing. Business organizations can also drug test their employees during their employment.

Are Drug Tests Required for Applicants and Employees?

Not all private employers are necessarily required by federal or state law to test job applicants and employees for drugs.

However, when companies employ people in safety-sensitive positions such as goods transport, public transport, security, mining, construction, aviation, etc., they may be legally bound to drug test certain employees for alcohol and drugs.

In most states, applicant/employee drug testing is authorized with certain terms and conditions.

Even when not required by law, many companies are now developing and implementing drug testing policies to create safer working environments and to save on associated costs such as loss of productivity, absenteeism, healthcare, workers’ compensation, insurance, etc.

Not just large scale companies, but small scale enterprises with a few dozen workers too are now keen to stop workplace alcohol and drug abuse.

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Is Applicant/Employee Drug Testing Regulated By Federal or State Laws?

Yes. Both applicant and employee drug testing are regulated by federal and state laws. In some cases, there may be additional restrictions or requirements mandated by city or county laws as well.

Drug testing laws vary across the states. For instance,

  • In the state of Alaska, all employers are covered. A company may refuse to hire a candidate if he or she tests positive in a pre-employment drug test. Employees need to be provided with 30-days notice and a copy of the workplace drug testing policy. Test positive employees can be disciplined or dismissed. Separate provisions exist for random drug testing of school bus drivers in the state of Alaska.
  • In the state of Connecticut, all private employers are covered. Applicant testing is authorized only when a candidate has been informed about the drug test in writing beforehand. In case a company hires school bus drivers, it is legally bound to have them tested for drugs. Private intrastate truck operators in Connecticut are required to perform random drug tests, post-accident drug tests and drug testing based on reasonable suspicion. For all other safety-sensitive jobs, random drug testing is authorized in Connecticut.

A company should carefully examine its drug testing policy and ensure compliance with the applicable federal, state, and local laws.

When Do Companies Perform Drug Tests for Applicants?

Pre-employment drug tests are a part of the company’s recruitment process. The information on whether all or a random set of job-applicants would be tested for drugs has to be advertised or communicated in advance. Applicant testing may also be required by law for certain safety-sensitive positions.

In many states, employers can drug test an applicant only after an offer of employment has been made. The job offer can be withdrawn if an applicant tests positive in a drug test or refuses to participate in a drug test.

  • Benefits Applicant Drug Testing: Pre-employment drug screening helps filter out candidates who may have used drugs in the past few hours, days, weeks or months. It can also deter individuals who may have been abusing illicit substances from applying for a vacant position.
  • Applicant Drug Testing Laws: Not all states have an identical set of laws for pre-employment drug testing. Whether testing is authorized or required for certain job profiles, which drug testing methods are allowed, when should applicant consent is obtained and how to assure privacy for an applicant – are a few questions that can be best answered by studying the specific state statutes concerning applicant drug testing.
  • Who to Test: Companies may test all applicants, test a random set of applicants or test based on reasonable suspicion.
  • Drug Testing Method: Different drug testing methods allow employers to analyze applicants’ history of drug use. Urine and mouth swab tests are the most commonly adopted drug testing methods by companies. These are quick, hassle-free, and cost-effective.

When Do Companies Drug Test Their Employees?

When and how employees can be tested for drug use during their employment is generally outlined clearly in the employee handbook.  The most common options include:

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  • Periodic Drug Tests: These tests are performed at routine intervals. For instance, a company may inform all its employees in advance that a drug test would be conducted on a monthly, half-yearly or yearly basis. If a company has conducted pre-employment drug tests in the past, it may not need to perform periodic drug tests at short intervals. But some employees may relapse or start abusing illicit drugs during their employment. Therefore, routine employee drug tests too are important.
  • Random Drug Tests: These tests are performed on a random set of employees. Companies need to make sure that the sample set is completely random. Therefore, it is advisable to either use a software program to generate a random set of employees or engage a third party agency. There should be no scope for discrimination. Even when employee selection for drug screening is random, employers may be required to give advance notification to the workers. Random drug testing allows companies to minimize drug screening costs while discouraging workplace drug abuse.
  • Post-Incident Drug Tests: These tests are performed in the event of a workplace accident. In most cases, a blood test is carried out to find out if an employee involved in an accident was under the influence of drugs. Companies that perform post-accident drug tests can reduce costs arising from workers’ compensation claims.
  • Drug Test Based on Reasonable Suspicion: An employee can be tested for drugs at any point in time during their employment based on reasonable suspicion. Companies should, however, make sure supervisors are not settling old scores or actively discriminating by subjecting certain workers to drug screening. Selective targeting or discrimination can lead to lawsuits.

An employee failing a drug test or refusing to participate in drug screening can be subjected to disciplinary action or terminated from the job.

Whether a company can legally adopt a zero-tolerance policy and fire all test-positive employees will depend on the applicable state laws. In second-chance states, for instance, companies are required by law to offer a second chance to test-positive employees. Such employees are provided with the necessary community support and counselling through Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs).

What to Test

Most companies choose one of the following drug testing methods:

  • Urine test
  • Saliva or mouth swab test
  • Hair follicle test
  • Blood test

These drug testing methods differ in unit cost, invasiveness, ease-of-implementation, and the time required for test results to come in.

Companies can test applicants and employees for alcohol and a variety of substances, legal and illegal, such as:

  • Alcohol
  • Cocaine (coke, crack)
  • Amphetamines (meth, ecstasy, speed, and crank)
  • Phencyclidine (PCP, angel dust)
  • Opiates (morphine, heroin, codeine, and opium)
  • THC (marijuana, cannabinoids, and hash)

With the 8-panel drug test, it is possible to detect several other substances such as Barbiturates, Benzodiazepines, and Methaqualone. A 10-panel drug test can detect even more substances such as Methadone and Propoxyphene.

Depending upon the nature of the job their employees are involved in, a company may also need to test employees for the use of hallucinogens, inhalants, anabolic steroids, Hydrocodone, and MDMA.

In case an applicant or employee is taking any supplement, pain killers, prescription or over-the-counter medications for an illness, he or she should be encouraged to divulge all such information before undergoing a drug test. It can lead to a false-positive.

Applicant and Employee Drug Testing – Perception Is the Key

The raging debate on whether workplace drug testing is ethical or not’ is not going to be over anytime soon. Some cities and states have already banned applicant and employee testing for marijuana (THC). Many other states have imposed restrictions on how companies can perform drug tests and when.

In any case, companies should make sure their workplace drug screening policies are viewed as a necessity by their current and future employees. It should be perceived as an important step towards a safer and more productive workplace.

Besides conducting applicant and employee drug screening, companies should also invest in educating their workforce about the dangers of workplace drug abuse through seminars, workshops, and circulars. It is equally important to adopt a more humane approach when dealing with test-positive employees.


Written By
Leon Reingold is the Editor-in-Chief at Drugtestsinbulk.com, a nationwide supplier of drug and alcohol testing products online.

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