Drug testing of employees is legally mandated in some occupations; corporations may also require that employees undergo drug testing before employment, at periodic intervals, or after an accident or incident. The usual drug test consists of supplying a sample of urine which is then analyzed in-house or by a commercial laboratory for specified drugs (e.g., marijuana, amphetamines, cocaine, or some other set; almost never are tests exhaustive of all substances because of cost). Testing of the breath, a salivary sample, or a sample of hair are alternatives. Blood tests are almost never used in employee drug tests unless a medical situation has arisen. Drug testing is undertaken and justified for safety reasons. The practice is rarely popular because it is intrusive; opponents also charge that drug testing violates fundamental individual rights and can have a corrosive effect on workplace morale.


Testing of transportation workers was mandated by The Omnibus Transportation Employee Testing Act of 1991. According to the Department of Transportation's Web site, the act "requires drug and alcohol testing of safety-sensitive transportation employees in aviation, trucking, railroads, mass transit, pipelines and other transportation industries." DOT states that roughly 12.1 million people are included under the "safety-sensitive" employee definition, but neither the department nor the regulation (49 Code of Federal Regulations, Part 40) actually spell out what that phrase means. It is left to each DOT element regulating the transportation industry to define such individuals. The phrase refers generally to operating and direct supervisory individuals in the transportation industry. Each regulatory agency also publishes separate regulations of how and when it conducts drug and alcohol tests.

Corporate Drug Testing

According to the American Management Association's 2000 survey of testing in the workplace, 47 percent of all companies surveyed conducted drug testing, down from 52 percent of companies in 1991. Testing of new hires was highest in manufacturing companies (78.5 percent conducted tests) and lowest in financial services (35.8 percent conducted tests). Testing of all employees also followed this pattern, with 42.2 percent of manufacturers doing tests but only 18.8 percent of financial services companies doing so in 2000. The Bureau of Labor Statistics had conducted a survey in 1990 but has not conducted such a survey since. In the 1990 survey, BLS had also noted a decline in drug testing.


According to the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP, a part of the Executive Office of the President), in 1978 31.3 percent of all persons aged 12 and older had used illicit drugs at least once in their lifetime. By 1998 this figure had gradually increased to 35.8 percent. After that year data collection techniques introduced a change so that subsequent years could not be compared to the 1978—1998 period. But the ratio in 1999 was 39.7 percent of all people. It dropped to 38.9 percent in 2000 and climbed to 41.7 percent in 2001.

Based on data published by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA, an element of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services), around 110 million people aged 12 or older had used illicit drugs during their lifetime in 2004, nearly 35 million had used drugs in the past year, nearly 19 million in the past month. Year-to-year data show some fluctuations but no strong trend. Thus lifetime use increased between 2002 and 2003 (up 1.95 million) but decreased between 2003 and 2004 (down 148,000). The overwhelming majority of these people used marijuana, 88 percent in lifetime, 73 percent in the past year, 76 percent in the past month. The next major use category was non-medical uses of medicines, with painkillers the largest segment of that category.

As reported in Social Trends and Indicators USA, alcohol use was significantly greater than any drug use in the United States. FBI arrest records in 2000, for instance, showed 2.8 million arrests for alcohol-related offenses and 1.6 million arrests for drug-offenses; of these drug offenses 646,000 were arrests for marijuana possession. Around 110,000 deaths annually are related to alcohol use; of these 16,000 are alcohol-related traffic deaths. Total drug-related deaths in 1997, according to ONDCP, were also 16,000.

These data show that 1) a large number of people use or have used drugs, 2) the overwhelmingly dominant drug of choice is marijuana, 3) other forms of drug use are extremely varied, with a very small number only using heroin, and 4) alcohol use produces more arrests and has a higher death toll than drugs.


Drug testing may be an appropriate initiative for a small business experiencing problems in its workforce or in order to avoid costly problems in the operation of expensive and sensitive equipment. The business may also, because of contracting regulations, be required to institute such a program. Drug testing may also be a means of lowering insurance costs. Advice in the establishment of such a program is available to the small business through the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration which maintains a telephone Helpline at 1-800-967-5752. The main issues to consider in planning such a program are the following:


Drug testing is legal and implicitly supported at the federal level by the 1998 Drug Free Workplace Act; the act creates a right to work in a drug-free work environment. But drug testing may be regulated at the state level. Researching such regulations should be an early step.

Test Criteria

The most common form of drug test is a urine test, but use of oral fluids and samples of hair are sometimes used. Testing hair can detect drug use some time in the past, but the method is costly. Oral fluid testing is not presently used in federal testing protocols, possibly because it cannot detect the presence of THC after 24 hours; delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol is an active cannabinoid. Most testing programs focus on a limited number of drugs in order to avoid the high expenses of multiple tests. LSD, for instance, cannot be detected in urine and requires expensive tests. For these reasons, also, conditions of the test need to be established in such a manner that costs can be predicted. The usual times of administration are 1) before hire, 2) randomly throughout the year, 3) following incidents/accidents. The testing plan needs also to define in advance if all employees will be tested or only certain categories of employees, e.g., heavy equipment operators. The cost of tests, including the acquisition of the sample and its analysis by a lab will range from $15 to $60 dollars.


The drug testing program needs to be made a formal part of the company's employment policy and announced so that employees are well aware of the testing program and, above all, how positive results will be handled, before the program is instituted.

The Testing Protocol

The drug testing program must have a well-designed protocol which will define where and how the test samples will be collected, how privacy will be preserved, and where the actual tests will be conducted. Lists of certified laboratories are available from SAMHSA. If testing is initially conducted in-house using commercially available testing kits, it is especially important to have arrangements for passing on non-negative results with samples to certified labs which can do more equipment-intensive testing (gas chromatography, mass spectroscopy).

Physician's Review

An employee may test positive because of his or her use of prescription medications. The availability of a medical review physician to look into such cases should be planned and made part of the total program.


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