Pre-Employment Drug Test Procedure

A pre-employment drug test procedure is the testing policy required by many companies before they will hire a candidate. Applicants for a job may have to submit to a drug and alcohol screening as part of the application process.

Understanding Pre-Employment Drug Testing

Employees can be subjected to tests for drugs and/or alcohol by their employer, as permitted by state law. It's important to remember that employment may be contingent on passing these drug screenings.

Each state has different laws on drug testing. In some cases, state or federal laws regulating the job may require applicants submit to drug testing. For example, jobs that are regulated by the United States Department of Transportation are covered by both state and federal drug testing laws.

Other states severely limit the options for employers who wish to perform drug tests on potential employees. These states put boundaries around how and when screenings can be performed.

Employers have numerous tests available to them, and may choose to only test for specific drugs, or a large variety. The testing methods may be:

  • blood
  • urine
  • hair
  • saliva
  • sweat
  • breath

Make sure you understand the different types of drug and alcohol screening available.

A Breathalyzer may be used to test an employee's blood alcohol level. This is generally applied if an employee or applicant is suspected of being drunk on the premises. A breath alcohol test can only test for current intoxication and has no indication of past use.

With a blood test, blood is drawn to determine the amount, if any, of drugs and alcohol in the system. Generally, blood tests for pre-employment drug screenings are used to find illegal substances. The most common drugs screened in a blood test are:

  • marijuana
  • amphetamines
  • cocaine
  • opiates
  • methamphetamines
  • alcohol
  • nicotine

A drug test performed on hair offers the longest period of viewing for past drug use. Pre-employment drug test procedures that use hair for testing can see a 90-day to six-month window. Hair tests cannot detect use of alcohol, but can be performed for:

  • methamphetamine
  • marijuana
  • cocaine
  • opiates
  • phencyclidine

Some companies use a saliva test. With this test, a sample of applicants' saliva is collected from inside their mouth. The saliva is then tested and can show drug use ranging from the last few hours up to a few days.

Urine tests are the most widespread and commonly used method, especially for pre-employment drug screenings. In addition, this method is used for random drug screenings after employment. With this test, drug use can be detected for varying amounts of time. Still, in general, substances can be detected for up to a month. The most common drugs tested in a urine test include:

  • alcohol
  • nicotine
  • amphetamines
  • marijuana
  • cocaine
  • opiates
  • methamphetamines

Employers are legally allowed to test for drugs and alcohol both in the workplace and as a condition of hire. Generally, applicants are only tested for illegal drugs as part of their condition of employment. You can request to view the company's drug testing policy, to see when and how they administer drug tests.

It's important to keep in mind that many types of jobs require drug testing because illegal or illicit use of drugs can affect not only an employee's performance but also the lives of others. Using drugs can alter employees' concentration and influence their judgment.

According to the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, employers pay about $81 billion per year because drug abuse.

Employers can reduce their risk when it comes to drug testing by working with a lab to get and verify results. Most labs offer either a five-panel or 10-panel screening.

The Five-Panel screen checks for:

  • Methamphetamine and Amphetamines
  • Cocaine
  • Opiates including codeine, heroin, and morphine
  • PCP or Phencyclidine
  • Marijuana (THC)

Employers who choose a 10-panel screening will have employees screened for:

  • Methamphetamine
  • Cocaine
  • Amphetamine
  • PCP or Phencyclidine
  • Opiates including morphine, codeine, and heroin
  • Marijuana (THC)
  • Methadone
  • Propoxyphene
  • Barbiturates
  • Benzodiazepines

Additional testing can be done to detect drugs such as:

  • Quaaludes
  • Hallucinogens such as peyote, LSD, mescaline, and mushrooms
  • Inhalants such as glue, hairspray, and paint
  • MDMA, otherwise known as Ecstasy
  • Anabolic steroids

Different drugs have different windows of detection. This detection window is the amount of time that the drug can be found in the employee's system.

Estimated detection windows are:

  • 1.5 hours for 1 oz. of alcohol
  • 48 hours for amphetamines
  • 2-10 days for barbiturates
  • 2-3 weeks for Benzodiazepines
  • 2-10 days for cocaine
  • Less than 1 day for heroin metabolite
  • 2-3 days for morphine
  • 8 hours for LSD
  • Up to several weeks for marijuana
  • 2-3 days for methamphetamine
  • 2-3 days for methadone
  • 1 week for PCP or Phencyclidine

Aside from a breath alcohol test, drug testing does not determine impairment or current drug use.

Everyone should keep in mind that these drug screenings are not perfect. In some cases, marijuana use when the THC is removed, may not be detected. Even more concerning for most, however, is that prescription medications may be detected and give a false positive for illegal drug use.

That's why employees taking prescription medications should reveal their use before testing so that it can be noted and verified. Some of the standard prescription medications that may be picked up by a drug screening include:

  • Penicillin
  • Adderall
  • Novocain
  • Oxycodone
  • Hydrocodone
  • Certain weight loss medications
  • Valium
  • Xanax
  • Ativan
  • Rohypnol

Pre-employment drug tests can improve company turnover, in-office theft, decrease absenteeism, and improve overall morale.

Urine and blood collection for testing purposes are considered minimally intrusive, according to the U.S. Supreme Court. They are not considered harmful to applicants when the specimens are collected in the correct environment and without direct observation.

Applicants and employees have a number of rights depending on the state regulations where they work and live, as well as the specific circumstances of the pre-employment drug test procedures. For example, if an employer only tests some applicants and not others, discrimination can be implied. On the other hand, drug testing can be required only for specific jobs or positions.

Employers who do pre-employment or random drug testing must have and abide by a written drug testing policy. It is illegal for an employer to try to test applicants without their knowledge, or in an otherwise underhanded way.

Still, most companies that do drug screenings state in their policy that they treat a refusal to take a drug test as they would a positive result. In the majority of cases, this means the applicant would be denied the position.

Drug Testing in the Workplace

When employers are concerned about whether an employee or applicant is using illegal or banned drugs, they can have the employee or applicant take a drug screening test. However, it's important to remember that this screening does not test for current impairment, only previous use. One of the biggest reasons that many companies across the country participate in drug testing is because this allows the company to benefit from Worker's Compensation Premium Discount programs.

When federal agencies conduct drug tests, they are required to follow standardized procedures. These procedures are laid out in the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA).

Private employers do not have to follow the same guidelines as federal agencies. However, employers that follow these guidelines are on solid legal footing. The guidelines require a medical review officer to review and evaluate all drug tests. In addition, the SAMHSA guidelines require a sample be sent to a certified laboratory once it is collected.

Generally, the collection site uses a variety of precautions to ensure that candidates cannot substitute specimens or make alterations to the test. Some of these precautions include turning off the water supply and having blue dye in the toilet.

SAMHSA Guidelines

Samples and forms for drug screenings are subject to a chain-of-custody document. This shows the storage and handling of samples from when they are collected until disposal. The chain-of-custody document offers written proof of everything that happens to the sample.

There is an initial screening, which is the first analysis done on any sample. The initial screening isn't always accurate and may offer false positives. If the screening is positive, a confirmation test should be performed.

The confirmation test is more accurate and offers specific information on the sample. This helps rule out mistakes made in the initial screening. The first screening and confirmation must match for the test to be labeled positive.

In some cases, a single sample is split. This allows for one sample to be used during the initial screening, while the second sample is used for the confirmation. Individuals being tested have the right to request that the confirmation takes place at a separate laboratory.

If both the initial screen and the confirmation show as positive, a MRO will review the test results and the chain-of-custody. The MRO will also contact the individual in question to ensure there aren't other reasons, such as medication, that caused the positive result.

Drug screening results are considered personal health information. So, those screening the sample must take great care to restrict the information shared. As a result, employees and applicants may be required to sign a release allowing their employer or potential employer to get the results. More information on the release of health information can be found by contacting U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which administers the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA).

Pre-employment drug screening cannot include testing for alcohol use, according to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990.

Generally an employer pays for requested drug tests according to SAMHSA. In addition, the time required to take a drug screening test is considered work hours and should, therefore, be included in a paycheck.

The Wage and Hour division of the Department of Labor oversees these regulations. Employers and employees can get more information by contacting this division directly.

Other Drug Screenings for Continued Employment

In addition to pre-employment drug screening, employers can require screenings for current employees. One of the most common reasons for this is probable cause or reasonable suspicion testing. When supervisors document behavior, which signals possible drug or alcohol use that violates company policy, this test can be conducted.

Employers should have consistent, clear definitions of the types of behavior that lead to this testing. In addition, any suspicion a supervisor has should be corroborated by another manager or supervisor. All managers should be carefully trained on warning signs because the decision to go ahead with probable cause testing is incredibly subjective.

In general, when employees take a probable cause drug test, they usually do not return to work until the results have come back.

In addition to reasonable suspicion tests, drug testing after an accident on the job is a common option. Personal and property damage can result from accidents on the job, and it's in the employer's best interest to ensure that drugs or alcohol were not a factor. Employers have to weigh carefully the types of accidents for which they will screen for drugs. After all, not all accidents require drug testing.

Keep in mind that while a post-accident drug test can show whether an employee has used drugs, the test cannot prove whether this was a factor in the accident. In fact, most drugs gleaned from the test do not indicate whether the employee was intoxicated in that moment because they only show past use.

Many companies perform unpredictable, unannounced, random drug testing on employees. Testing pools should be determined ahead of time. Employers can use information such as the employee number, Social Security number, or even department to select employees for random drug testing. The best way to ensure that the selection is truly random is by using a computer randomization program.

Some employers engage in periodic testing. This testing is pre-scheduled and administered to everyone in a company or department. This may take place on an annual, quarterly, or even monthly basis. In general, periodic testing is more acceptable to employees, because they know it's coming.

Additional tests may be announced and used by the employer. If employees previously tested positive for drugs and completed treatment, they may be required to take a return-to-duty test. Blanket testing is similar to random testing, but everyone is tested, rather than just a select few.

State Restrictions

Many states across the country have restrictions to limit an employer from randomly drug testing employees when they do not hold a safety-sensitive job. Employers should take the time to become familiar with the state laws to which they are subject.

Comprehensive Drug-Free Workplace

Remember that drug testing procedures are only a small part of a comprehensive drug-free workplace program. Employees should have written policies that outline expectations in clear, concise language. Training should be implemented for both managers and employees. It should include discussion of the reasons for the drug-free workplace, as well as ways to spot potential problems. Employee Assistance Programs (EAP) can help provide referrals and counseling to employees who suffer from a drug problem.

Employers that need help putting together a drug-free workplace policy can get help from the Department of Labor's online Drug-Free Workplace Advisor.

Employers should also consult with a well-versed lawyer to ensure that they are complying with all local, state, and federal laws relevant to their drug-free policy or drug testing programs.

When implementing a comprehensive drug-free workplace program, employers are creating a healthier, safer, and more productive environment for employees. Take the time to educate employees about the dangers of being intoxicated on the job and overall drug and alcohol abuse. Encourage employees who struggle with drug or alcohol abuse to seek help. With these steps, you'll help ensure the community and company are safe spaces.

Talk to a Lawyer

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