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October 17, 2006 8:13 AM CDT

Using a Drug-free Workplace to Strengthen Your Workforce


More construction companies are implementing drug-free workplace programs that involve drug testing.
More construction companies are implementing drug-free workplace programs that involve drug testing.

Illegal drug use is certainly not epidemic in the masonry industry, but even a single drug abuser can cost a company money, cause accidents, and ruin a well-established reputation. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the construction industry is particularly susceptible to workers with substance abuse problems, having some of the highest rates of drug and alcohol abuse of any industry.

For business owners who don't realize the potential side effects, the Ohio Bureau of Workers' Compensation and the U.S. Small Business Administration provide sobering statistics about employees who use drugs: they're up to 50 percent less productive; absent three weeks more per year and tardy three times more; nearly four times more likely to have an accident at work, and five times more likely to file a workers' compensation claim. As if that's not enough, drug users average 300 to 400 percent higher medical claims and are responsible for 50 to 80 percent of internal theft.

The good news is that more construction companies are implementing drug-free workplace programs that involve drug testing.

"Drug use was not running rampant through our company, but as we have come to realize, even one user on the job is not worth the risk of all the other employees on the site, no matter how good of a worker the user may be," said Damian L. Lang, president of Lang Masonry Contractors & EZ Grout Corporation in Waterford, Ohio.

Drug Testing as an Investment
Everyone at Lang's company is required to take a drug test before being hired and randomly thereafter. The testing, which started five years ago, has actually increased employee morale, Lang said.

"By implementing the [drug] policy, we let everyone know we care seriously about the people we employ," Lang said. "We also discovered a decrease in equipment abuse, fewer fights on the job, and fewer complaints from general contractors about some of the things our people were doing on the projects."

Although Lang initially believed that employees' habits were their own business, he soon realized how other workers were impacted.

"As we were growing and getting more people in the field, some of the best employees started putting letters in the suggestion box that said we needed a drug-testing program," Lang explained.

GBC Concrete and Masonry Construction Inc. in Lake Elsinore, Calif., also sought to balance respect for employees with the need to maintain a safe, productive and drug-free work environment, said Tom Daniel, company president and Mason Contractors Association of America (MCAA) vice president. The company's position is that drug and alcohol abuse is incompatible with employment, so it tests employees for drugs.

"The safety of our workers is our main priority," Daniel said. "We find it [the company's drug policy] also promotes an environment of reassurance between employees. It is good to know that the person working next to you is going to perform in the safest possible manner."

Indeed, employees who abuse drugs can seriously compromise safety. Lang, who also conducts business seminars that cover drug testing and has written a book for mason contractors, points out statistics that are sure to grab mason contractors' attentions: drugs or alcohol are involved in 47 percent of serious workplace accidents and 40 percent of fatalities in these accidents, and the average annual cost of a substance abuser in the workplace is $7,000.

Lang said the drug tests his company uses cost $55 per test. By mid-summer, his company had spent $1,430 in pre-employment testing and will spend approximately $3,500 for random drug testing of an employee pool of about 90 people. The company will spend another $3,150 in drug-free workplace training, Lang said, adding that he's applying for a grant to offset the cost.

"We certainly see this as being an investment for the company," he said. "One boom getting twisted on a Lull forklift will cost us more to repair than it costs us for the entire drug-testing program for a year."

Identifying Drug Abusers, Before and After Employment
Candidates seeking employment at GBC Concrete and Masonry must pass a drug test before a job offer is made, Daniel said. That alone sends a signal to applicants.

"We have noticed a sharp decrease in applicants who actually will come in for a drug screen if they are using drugs," he noted. "They usually will not show up at all. This is a deterrent for anyone using illegal drugs from applying for a position with the company."

Once hired, employees are randomly tested without advance notice, Daniel said. Those who test positive the first time for drugs or alcohol are offered the opportunity for treatment, except where independent grounds for termination exist, as covered in the employee handbook.

Lang also offers assistance to employees with substance abuse problems. The company pays for half of the counseling for employees who ask for help. The company's insurance picks up the tab for the other half.

"This will help an employee during a hard time to get back on his feet," Lang said. "However, it has been our experience that very few drug users have the courage to ask for help."

Otherwise, an employee who tests positive gets a week off without pay or can enroll in a counseling program. The person must test negative to return to work, which can take a couple weeks, Lang said. A second offense results in a two-week suspension without pay, and a third ends in termination.

Lang said the drug testing helps casual drug users, since they'll usually stop using drugs to save their jobs.

"There is also a piece of mind that comes with drug testing. As a business owner, my managers and I can't monitor everyone every minute of the day, so it may be difficult to detect those who have serious drug problems," he said. "Those people can be detected through drug testing. We know, as an employer, through the drug testing program, that we are doing all we can to protect our workers, their families and our own families."

While starting a drug testing program may initially cost a contractor some otherwise good employees, Lang said it eventually helps the company.

"Statistics show they are most likely the ones in the future that will wreck your trucks or get someone hurt on your project," he said. "When we started testing, our foremen warned us that we would lose 30 out of the 80 people we had in the field. We only lost three."

Four weeks before drug testing started, the company held a special meeting to inform employees about the testing and advised them to "clean up or leave the company," Lang said. "The testing wasn't about catching someone to cause them more pain. That's why we were open and honest about telling them we were starting the program and when it was starting. It was about providing the safest workplace we possibly can for each of them."

Fast, Reliable, On-the-job Drug Tests
"I really think it's important for people to understand that drug testing is not a club to hit people with," said Jay Davis, president of Omega Laboratories in Mogadore, Ohio. "It protects the health and safety of the workers because drug users are going to hurt themselves or an innocent bystander."

Peter Cholakis, vice president of marketing for Avitar Inc. in Canton, Mass., agreed, saying testing is designed to discourage drug use before it starts.

"The goal of drug testing is not to catch abusers," Cholakis said. "The goal is prevention and deterrence."

Avitar provides a $20 oral fluid test, better known as the saliva test. It can be administered by an employer or a third party with immediate results right on the job site.

"The cost savings of drug testing is typically 100 times the cost of the test," Cholakis said. "We have companies that have gone from multiple accidents to zero or near zero."

Saliva samples are easy to obtain. There are no needles, it's not a bio-hazard, and there are no disposal issues, as with blood. Like blood testing, the oral fluid test identifies drug use only within the last few days, but since it detects recent drug use within 10 minutes of use it's a good test following an accident or reasonable suspicion of using drugs.

"For post accident testing, oral fluid and blood are the only viable options," Cholakis said.

Meanwhile, Omega Laboratories tests for drugs using hair samples. It won't detect drugs used within the last three to four days, but it will identify drugs used over a 90-day period.

"A hair test is good for pre-employment and random tests because it shows a history, not just a couple days," Davis said. "It's not the test to use for a post-accident test."

Davis and Cholakis said that, although urine testing is the most popular testing method, it's oftentimes unreliable.

"There are over 11 million websites on how to beat a urine test. There's a cottage industry on ways to beat it," Cholakis said. "Cheating, or beating, the test is the primary reason companies are wanting to change."

Blood, saliva and hair tests are impossible to pass by cheating. In addition, Davis said his hair tests, which cost $44 to $55 and have a one-day turnaround, find up to seven times more drug users than urine tests.

"If you just catch one guy, you pay back the cost of the test," he said.

Keeping the Drug Policy Legal
Before drug testing employees, mason contractors need to make sure their actions are legal. To do that, they should consult a lawyer to find out about applicable local, state and federal laws, said Thomas L. McCally, equity partner with Carr Maloney P.C., a law firm in Washington, D.C.

"If you're going to institute a drug testing program, talking to an attorney is the smartest thing you can do because there are too many pitfalls," McCally advised.

GBC Concrete's Daniel added that many states have drug-testing statutes and recommended guidelines that outline what an employer can and cannot do. "It is important that employers determine what laws, if any, exist in the states where they conduct business to ensure that the testing rules and procedures established are in compliance with state regulations," he said.

McCally stated the next step is to have a written drug policy in place that concurs with the laws in every jurisdiction and state in which the company does business.

"The downside risk of a lawsuit and defending it is just too great not to have a written policy in place. Your policy is your shield," McCally said, adding that employees need to sign the policy, agreeing to its terms. "If it goes to court, that becomes exhibit number one."

A policy should clearly state terms for terminating employees who abuse drugs, he said. Some states don't allow random drug testing, but do permit testing for "reasonable suspicion" of drug use. In that case, the policy needs to detail what covers reasonable suspicion, what actions the company will take, and an appeal process.

"You have to have a system set up to protect the employee's privacy," McCally said. "You have to have some way to appeal the test results and even have the right to refuse the test in the first place."

The written drug policy has additional benefits, Lang said.

"The insurance company does look at Lang Masonry's drug policy, but more importantly, to bid most commercial projects today, in Ohio at least, you must have a policy in place," he stated. "We were also offered a 15 percent discount on our workers' compensation rate after becoming a drug-free workplace employer."

Drug Panels
Drug testing guidelines are established by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, formerly under the direction of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA).

The five "panels," or drug groups, companies often test for are referred to as the "NIDA 5." The panels cover dozens of drugs in five classes: cannabinoids (marijuana); cocaine; amphetamines (including methamphetamine); opiates (heroin, opium, morphine); and phencyclidine (PCP).

However, the panels, established more than 20 years ago, don't detect "synthetic" drugs such as synthetic pain killers a commonly abused type of drug. Drug tests that test more than five panels are available, but they may identify prescription medications, which can touch on privacy issues. For that reason, companies typically stick with the NIDA 5.

About the Author

Brett Martin is a freelance writer located in Shakopee, Minn. with several years of construction and writing experience.


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