What Is Pre-Employment Drug Testing?

Pre-employment drug testing is often a requirement for people applying for a job. Depending on the state, it's possible for employees to be tested for drugs and alcohol in their workplace. Employers may use several different drugs and alcohol tests. Commonly, urine tests, blood test, breath tests, saliva tests, and sweat tests are used to detect the presence of drugs and alcohol.

Pre-Employment Drug and Alcohol Screening

Drug-testing laws can vary depending on the state where a person is seeking employment. In some states, employee drug testing is required by law. Anyone seeking employment in an industry regulated by the U.S. Department of Transportation, for example, is required by both federal and state law to undergo a drug and alcohol test. Some states place limits on the location and method for pre-employment drug testing.

Breath Alcohol Tests

Breath alcohol testing devices, which are commonly known as breathalyzers, can be used to measure blood alcohol levels. However, these devices only measure current blood alcohol levels and are not able to detect past alcohol use.

Blood Drug and Alcohol Tests

Many employers will use a blood drug test to screen applicants for illegal drugs. Blood tests can be used to measure alcohol in the blood stream at the time the sample was taken. Some of the drugs these tests are used to screen for include alcohol, amphetamines, cocaine, marijuana, methamphetamines, nicotine, and opiates.

Hair Drug Tests

A hair drug test can be used to detect past drug usage for up to 90 days in the past. These tests only detect past use, not current impairment, and cannot detect alcohol. Hair tests can screen for cocaine, marijuana, methamphetamines, opiates, and phencyclidine.

Mouth Swab Drug and Alcohol Tests

A mouth swab drug test detects drugs through the saliva from employees or job applicants. These tests are also called oral fluid tests and saliva tests. Mouth swab tests are used to detect recent drug usage within a few hours or up to two days. Many employers use these tests because they are very simple and noninvasive.

Urine Drug and Alcohol Tests

The most common type of pre-employment drug testing is a urine drug test. By analyzing someone's urine, it is possible to detect the presence of illegal drugs or alcohol after the effects of the substance have dissipated. Urine tests are frequently used to detect amphetamines, alcohol, cocaine, methamphetamines, opiates, nicotine, and marijuana.

In addition to pre-employment drug testing, many employers will randomly urine test current employees, particularly in certain occupations.

Why Drug Screening?

Companies drug test current and prospective employees because drug or alcohol usage may harm job performance and can even put the lives of others at risk. Jobs that require using heavy machinery, for instance, are particularly dangerous when an employee is under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

Drug use is so harmful to businesses that the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence has estimated that using these substances results in annual losses of $81 billion. Employee drug use can affect judgment and concentration and may put employers at risk for a lawsuit.

What Drugs Are You Testing For?

Most employers will use either a 5-panel or 10-panel drug test. 5-panel drug tests screen for the following substances:

  • Amphetamines
  • Methamphetamines
  • Marijuana (THC)
  • PCP
  • Codeine, heroin, morphine, and other opiates

10-panel tests can detect:

  • Methamphetamines
  • Amphetamines
  • Cocaine
  • Marijuana
  • Opiates
  • Barbiturates
  • Benzodiazepine
  • PCP
  • Propoxyphene
  • Methadone

If a person isn't currently using a drug like cocaine, heroin, marijuana, meth, or PCP, then they should easily pass the 5-panel test. Marijuana that has had its THC removed, such as medical marijuana, may not be detected. Tests may also detect prescription medications like Adderall, hydrocodone, Novocain, oxycodone, and penicillin. 10-panel tests can detect some weight-loss drugs, as well as prescription medications like Ativan, Rohypnol, Valium, and Xanax.

Beating a Drug Test

It's common for people to wonder if it's possible to "beat" a drug test. Drugs can remain in your system based on factors like:

  • Your metabolism
  • The concentration or dosage of the drug you used
  • Frequency of use
  • Type of drug and drug test
  • Sensitivity of the test

Some tests, such as those that use nail clippings and hair, can detect drug usage that occurred during the six-months prior to the drug test. Diluting urine can interfere with drug test results. However, tainted urine can usually be detected.

Employer Options

Contrary to what many people might believe, employers have the right to randomly drug test their employees on a regularly scheduled basis. They also have the right to drug test their employees when there is reasonable suspicion of illicit drug use. Many employers will request a drug test within a short time period, so that the suspected employee doesn't have time to attempt to cheat the test.

While urine is the most common drug test option for employers, there are a wide variety of specimen types that can be collected. Employers can improve their hiring process by including an electronic drug screen process.

Pre-Employment Drug Testing

The primary reason that employers want to maintain a drug-free workplace is to limit the negative effects that drug abuse can have on an organization. While current employees can and are drug tested, it is more common for employers to use pre-employment drug testing. Testing applicants for drugs and alcohol can protect businesses from the consequences of hiring a drug user or alcoholic.

Although all applicants for employment may be drug screened, pre-employment drug testing is generally scheduled when a conditional job offer has been made. For the job offer to become permanent, the applicant must receive a negative drug test result.

Private employers are not legally required to drug test their employees and do so at their own discretion. Employees in a federally regulated position, on the other hand, are mandated to take and pass a pre-employment urine test. Employees that are federally required to take a drug test include airline pilots, bus drivers, railroad employees, taxi drivers, and truck drivers.

Safety-sensitive positions such as these usually have fewer positive test results than other employees. The reasons for this are varied, and may be a matter of licensing and training requirements, and the vast nature of drug testing.

The only form of pre-employment drug testing that has been approved for federal usage is urine testing, which is also the most common form of drug testing in private businesses. However, many private businesses are starting to use oral fluid testing. This type of testing is increasing in popularity because sample collection can be easily observed, making it much harder for an employee to cheat. Also, oral fluid testing is much cheaper than other testing methods as samples can be collected onsite in a very brief timeframe.

Besides increasing safety, there are a variety of benefits to pre-employment drug testing. Pre-employment drug testing has been shown to increase employee morale and productivity, and also reduce the incidences of missed work, employee turnover, and theft.

Workplace Drug Testing

Drug testing is the most effective way for employees to discover if applicants or current workers are using drugs. Workplace drug testing can be used to detect recent drug and alcohol usage, and can increase the safety of the workplace for all employees. Screening employees for drug usage can also help employers save a great deal of money, as drug usage has been linked with increased health care costs and short-term disability claims.

Most private employers are allowed to institute a drug-testing program in whatever way it best fits their needs. When an employer chooses drug testing via urinalysis, testing can be performed in a health unit located at their worksite, in a doctor's office, or at another location selected by the employer. Whatever form of drug testing is chosen, a chain-of-custody form needs to be used to fully document how a specimen was handled and stored.

The first test done on a urine sample is called an initial screen. Although this initial screen is fairly accurate, some employers may want a confirmation test. Confirmation tests are extremely accurate due to their use of a gas chromatograph/mass spectrometer. A second test can eliminate any false positives that occurred during the initial screening. If a urine sample is split in two, it is known as a split sample.

One of the most common forms of workplace drug testing is called reasonable suspicion testing, which is also referred to as for-cause or probable-cause testing. This type of drug test is performed when a supervisor suspects that an employee is using drugs, usually by observing a change in their actions. It is common for reasonable suspicion testing to be performed after a workplace injury or property damage, as drugs and alcohol can be a cause of the incidents.

Some employers perform random drug testing. Employees are selected for this form of drug testing at random, usually by creating a testing pool with information like employee ID numbers. Random tests are effective because they do not allow drug users any time to prepare for the test. Alternatively, employees may be subject to periodic testing, where drug tests are administered on a set schedule.

If an employee has tested positive for drugs in the past and is returning to work after completing a substance abuse program, they may be required to submit to a return-to-duty test. This test ensures the employee is no longer using drugs and is capable of resuming their employment.

There are multiple solutions that employers can choose for maintaining a drug-free workplace. In addition to regular testing, employers can construct a written policy that fully details their expectations for employees in regard to drug and alcohol use. Another component of a drug-free workplace is providing supervisors with the training necessary to identify drug use. Some workplaces may provide their employees with education about the danger of drug use.

Employers can also develop an Employee Assistance Program (EAP). Employees that are currently struggling with drug or alcohol use can use the EAP to find a qualified counselor or rehabilitation services. Any employer concerned with drug use in the workplace needs to be sure to have a comprehensive drug-free program in place.

Four Common Myths about Drug Testing

There are a wide variety of myths surrounding employment drug testing that are believed by both employers and employees. Quickly examining a few of these myths will make it easy to see why pre-employment testing is so important for a happy and productive workplace.

The biggest myth about drug testing is that drug use has little to no effect on the safety of the workplace, but in reality, the opposite is true. A wide variety of studies have shown that drug use substantially contributes to an unsafe work environment, and some estimates show that drug and alcohol use are the cause of one in six workplace deaths.

Another myth is that marijuana can stay in your body for months and years after usage, making it easily detectable on drug tests. The fact is that marijuana will generally only stay in your system between 3 and 7 days, meaning a drug test will only detect this substance if it is taken within a week of consumption.

There is also a widespread belief that drug tests are unbeatable. While it certainly can be difficult to cheat a drug test, it is possible. Common ways to subvert these tests include using diluting agents, substituting agents, or oxidizing agents.

Lastly, there is a belief that drug tests commonly result in false positives, making these tests inaccurate and not worth the effort. Because false positives do occur, there is a thread of truth to this myth. However, false positives are not as widespread as many people believe, and can easily be avoided by performing a second confirmation test.

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