Drug use is rapidly increasing among American workers, as more states liberalize marijuana laws, cocaine makes a resurgence and more people abuse amphetamines and heroin. A new study by Quest Diagnostics Inc., a workplace drug-testing lab, found that the number of workers testing positive for illicit drugs is higher than at any time in the last 12 years.
That puts employers in a tricky predicament, particularly if employees are using at work, which could reduce productivity and also make them more susceptible to workplace injuries since they may not be as focused as they should be on their work. In 2016, 4.2% of the 8.9 million urine drug tests that Quest conducted for employers turned up positive, compared to 4% in 2015 and 3.5% in 2011. The rate was the highest since 2004, when 4.5% of tests showed evidence of potentially illicit drug use.
While there were marked increases in positive tests for most illicit drugs, the surprising excption was prescription opioids like hydrocodone and oxycodone, thanks to stricter enforcement in many jurisdictions around the country. Marijuana is the most commonly used drug among U.S. workers and was identified in 2.5% of all urine tests for the general workforce in 2016, up from 2.4% a year earlier. In oral fluid testing, which detects recent drug use, marijuana positivity increased nearly 75%, from 5.1% in 2013 to 8.9% in 2016. The highest increases for marijuana usage among workers seemed to be in states that have recently legalized the recreational use of marijuana. The number of workers testing positive in Colorado rose 11%, while in Washington there was a 9% increase. The rates of increase were more than double the increase nationwide in 2016.
Changes in test-positives by drug:
- Amphetamine: Up 8%
- Marijuana: Up 4.2%
- Heroin: Zero (after 146% increase in four years prior)
- Oxycodone: Down 4%
- Cocaine: Up 12%
Implications for businesses
About 12% of workers who die on the job test positive for drugs or alcohol in their system at the time of the incident. And incidentally, one OSHA study found that the most dangerous occupations, like construction and mining, also have the highest drug use rates among workers.
Employers suffer from hiring substance abusers in many ways. Not only do they run the risk of having deadly or dangerous accidents occur, but substance abusers also cost employers money in other ways, including poor productivity and decision-making.
Substance abusers may:
- Have poor work performance.
- Frequently call in sick or arrive late.
- Frequently change workplaces.
- Struggle with productivity.
- Injure themselves or others at work.
If you’re concerned, you can initiate an effective workplace drug program that includes drug testing before hiring and during employment – and the consequences for violating the rules. You should have in place rules for working while under the influence and the ramifications for doing so.
You may also want to consider an employee assistance program for employees who feel they may have a problem, as well as for those who feel they’re developing a problem. A quality assistance program will offer services such as counseling to deal with substance abuse problems. You can also want to consider holding meetings about health and safety and drug use. Provide education about what addiction looks like and why people begin to abuse drugs/alcohol. Education can help employees understand how to support those that are struggling, as well as remove negative stereotypes often associated with addiction. Provide health benefits that offer a more “comprehensive coverage” for addiction. This includes addiction assessment (screening), treatment, aftercare and counseling.