What You Need to Know About the Future of Workplace Testing

What You Need to Know About the Future of Workplace Testing

How evolving cannabis laws are impacting workplace safety protocols and why maintaining and updating rigorous drug testing remains essential for employers across various industries.

It should come as no surprise that employers are concerned about workplace safety, often turning to drug and alcohol testing to help assuage those fears. A recent survey of U.S. employers found that 44 percent reported concerns about workplace safety due to cannabis legalization, and 86 percent of employers reported a belief that drug testing increased the safety of the workplaces. With the rising popularity of cannabis and other drugs, some employers question if it is worth continuing to drug test, particularly for cannabis. While workplace drug and alcohol testing offer many benefits, perhaps the most pertinent is helping to maintain a safe workplace. 

Of major concern for many employers is cannabis. Why? First, not only is cannabis rising in popularity, it is also rising in potency. From 1995 to 2021, THC, the active ingredient in cannabis, rose in seized samples from 3.96 percent to 15.34 percent. Second, 15 percent of Americans 12 and older report using cannabis in the past month. Third, workplace cannabis-positive tests are on the rise. 2022 saw a 7.3 percent cannabis positivity rate for post-accident urine tests, following a steady increase over the prior 10 years.

Cannabis in the Workplace: Statistics

A recent study found that approximately 60 percent of the 46 million Americans struggling with a substance-use disorder have a job. In the same year, 4.3 percent of all non-mandated urine tests perform by one large national lab were positive for cannabis. As of January 2024, 24 states and D.C. permit recreational cannabis use and 38 states and D.C. permit medical cannabis use, though not all have programs that are currently up and running. Currently, cannabis is the most commonly used federally illegal drug in the United States.

Increasingly, states are limiting employer’s rights to test for cannabis under certain circumstances, making some employers question the need for continued cannabis testing. With cannabis use becoming more popular, it is more imperative than ever that employers are aware of the signs and symptoms of cannabis use and continue testing for its presence in the workplace, when permissible. 

Why Drug Test?

Drug testing provides pertinent information that is accessible only as a result of testing. The removal of cannabis from a testing panel removes access to information that impacts the safety of the workplace as a whole. Continued drug testing is a single data point of assessment that provides employers with information such as:

• Does the employee use drugs?

• Was the employee able to give up drugs for long enough to obtain a job?

• Is an employee more prone to risky decisions in the workplace?

• Did the employee do enough research ahead of time to know that your company tests for drugs, including cannabis?

• Does the employee have a habit that they can’t stop, no matter the consequences?

Continued testing for cannabis provides important information about employees and/or applicants that could impact how a workplace functions. Knowing that an employee is substance dependent could impact safety, time management, and what functions employees are allowed to perform in order to cut down on employer liability. 

The key to continued cannabis testing, even in states that restrict it, is looking only at recent use. Gone are the days of trying to see if cannabis has been used in the past week plus. Now, when trying to balance workplace safety with tricky state laws, employers should look at if employer has recently used cannabis and could reasonably still be impaired from said use when at the worksite or during working hours. Choosing a test specimen that detects recent use and has a short window of detection is key in this new era of workplace safety. 

Employer Impacts of Drugs in the Workplace

Employers that are contemplating the removal of cannabis or other drugs from their test panel should be aware of the potential impacts on their workplace. Generally, the impact of drug use is talked about in terms of three major areas: increased premature deaths and fatal accidents, increased injuries and higher accident rates, extra sick leave and/or greater absenteeism, and loss of production. However, additional problem areas because of drug use may include, but are not limited to:

• Tardiness.

• Negative impacts to job performance.

• Poor decision making.

• Loss of efficiency.

• Theft.

• Lower co-worker morale.

• Increased interpersonal issues.

• Interferences with attention and/or concentration.

• Higher turnover rates.

• Increased rates of disciplinary procedures.

It’s difficult to put a price on the impact of a drug user in the workplace. Take the increased safety concerns to the user, other employees, and potential clients, and add in the aforementioned impacts such as lost work time due to lowered productivity, and it’s easy to see that even one drug user in a workplace can have a large impact on your bottom line as well as overall workplace safety.

The Future of Workplace Drug Testing

With new laws, such as those in New York, California, and Washington, limiting an employer’s options in terms of testing for cannabis, employers may find themselves wondering what the next step is. Do you drop cannabis entirely from your drug test panel and focus on other, less commonly used drugs? Or do you continue testing for cannabis in a way that is generally permissible while also preserving the safety of your workplace? 

Increasingly, employers are choosing to switch to test specimens that fit the needs of this new phase of workplace drug testing and legal cannabis. Impairment tests, looking at things such as eye movements, are increasing in popularity for employers that want to determine if an employer is impaired NOW rather than has used cannabis over the prior 30 days. 

When looking for a specimen that both fits the legal needs of testing for cannabis in many states, as well as continues to support a safer workplace, look for a test specimen that has a short window of detection (the period of time during which a drug is detectable in the user’s system) and correlates with the window of impairment for cannabis (the amount of time post-ingestion where most cannabis users feel impairing effects). Additionally, look for a specimen, if not performing impairment testing, that tests for the parent drug rather than metabolites. This likely allows you to comply with more restrictive state testing laws such as those in California or Washington.

More employers are switching to oral fluids, especially with the recent approval of oral fluid by the Department of Transportation (DOT). It’s likely not unrelated that industry providers such as labs and Third-Party Administrators (TPAs) are saying that both urine (46 percent) and oral fluid (46 percent) will be the most commonly used specimens in the future, whereas in years past urine was considered the “gold standard” and future of workplace drug testing.

Legal in nearly all 50 states and the District of Columbia, oral fluid offers an easy, legally compliant solution for most employers, can be used for federally mandated positions, and is often combined with other testing methods to create a specific, customized drug and alcohol testing program. Oral fluid has high positivity rates, increasing workplace safety, and detects parent drug, meaning a positive oral fluid test correlates with recent use (within the past hours to days), rather than historic use. 

Conclusion

While it may seem prudent to employers to eliminate cannabis from their panel in order to ease a perceived burden, employers who choose to do so are, in fact, opening themselves to a variety of potential costly consequences. Federally mandated employers are required to continue testing for cannabis, no matter their state’s stance on the substance. To ensure a safe workplace in today’s environment, it is essential to choose a test specimen such as oral fluid that is legally compliant while offering the benefits of a drug-free workplace.

This article originally appeared in the June 2024 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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