Friday, 31 March 2006 09:00

Hidden costs of employing substance abusing employees

Written by Dick Strom

Kubla Khan, an S. T. Coleridge classic poem, is enchantingly haunting, fragmented, and shrouded in pleasant mystery with good reason - it is the poet's remembrances of an opium-induced dream. From that era before Cele-brex and Advil, when opium was a commonly accepted legal means of countering arthritic pain, Kubla Khan is an exception to the rule - one of the finest poems ever penned, though the product of a drugged mind. 

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Though drug and alcohol abuse has been with us virtually forever, it re-emerged in a big way in the 1950s. At the time, experimental drugs were touted as a means of increasing "spiritual awareness" and reaching a "higher consciousness." But for many they became a means of escape as the war in Viet Nam dragged on, Cold War nuclear proliferation loomed, and many believed the world would implode.

The resultant malaise of cynicism became the perfect breeding ground for promotion of moral corruption, "free love" and experimentation with mind-altering drugs among them. The latter soon gravitated from merely being a temporary means of forgetting present problems, to getting really screwed up and doing stupid things without regard for others. Obviously, not everyone fell into this trap, but enough did to create a plague that still adversely affects certain among our world - and workforce.

In years past I've unwittingly employed some interesting substance abusers. One landed in prison for using and selling crack-cocaine; I misinterpreted another's constant sniffing and blowing his nose as a bad case of allergies; And, after the fact, I discovered that a former painter was smoking pot in our paint booth - this became evident when his legs were crushed because he was too stoned to simply sidestep a car that lost its brakes entering the booth. The simple point is that drug abusers are often hard to detect.

Drug and alcohol abuse in the workplace is detrimental to productivity, profitability, and workplace safety. And so it has necessitated the creation of an industry to deal with workplace alcohol and drug abuse detection and control. My shop recently signed on with the nationwide Drug Free Business (www.drugfreebusiness.com) to randomly test/monitor our employees. Your business can't afford the potential and real liability caused by impaired employees.

Benefits of testing for substance abuse

Shop owners may ask, "What's in it for me? Why should I be interested in having my employees randomly tested and monitored for substance abuse?" Let's consider some of the cost savings available for operating a substance-free business.

Shop owners will initially benefit from fewer L&I claims, resulting in lower L&I rates, a reduction in lost time, and greater profitability. Additional benefits will likely include an increase in quality of the services you produce, diminished destruction and/or theft of company property, and lower insurance rates due to unimpaired judgment. Furthermore, owners will benefit from not having to pay overtime to other employees who currently have to make up for the absence and other deficiencies of employees with substance abuse problems. Clean employees will be able to concentrate more on producing a better repair.

According to Drug Free Business, a typical "recreational drug user" in today's workforce is:

• 2.2 times more likely to request early dismissal or time off

• 2.5 times more likely to have absences of eight days or more

• 3 times more likely to be late for work

• 3.6 times more likely to be involved in an accident off the job (which in turn affects attendance or performance on the job)

• 5 times more likely to file a workers' compensation claim

• 7 times more likely to have wage garnishments

• One-third less productive

Based on these statistics, a single drug user in, say, Washington State will cost a company around $14,946 per year. This should be inducement enough to participate in a drug testing program.

Other major benefits of substance abuse detection and intervention include being able to advertise your business as a "drug-free workplace." Consumers who may not know the difference between a bumper and a beanpole, know that impaired service providers are less reliable than unimpaired ones. Doubt this reasoning? Consumers don't know if some of your employees are substance abusers, but most will notice the sign in your office advertising that you are a substance-free worker facility.

And a drug-free workplace will be a big boost in the morale of fellow employees. One shop owner told me, "Every time I deny employment to someone who fails the drug test, it reinforces the program to the rest of my employees. I recently had a young man who was caught trying to substitute someone else's urine he'd been carrying around in a vial in his pocket (if it isn't very near to 98.6 degrees, they fail the test). The Drug Free Business people informed me what was going on, and I was able to refuse employment to him. Being a minority, he then accused me of racial prejudice, and said he couldn't work for someone who interfered with his lifestyle. All I could think was Good Riddance!!… and my other employees were glad to not have to work around him.


The program has forced two employees out, and averted hiring at least five others because they failed the pre-employment drug test. I can't begin to tell you the incredible return this program has made in terms of avoiding the drug-related problems that come with drug using employees. When told they will be tested for substance abuse, most users will just make an excuse and leave. Look at it this way: when you deny employment to substance abusers, it's your competitor down the street, the one who doesn't test, that gets stuck with them.

A good friend of mine - a refinish tech - described why he favors workplace drug testing: "I think it needs to be stressed that I'm the one out there on the floor forced to work next to the substance abuser. Employers have responsibilities that include providing me a safe place to work, supplying me fresh air when I paint, and protecting me by employing co-workers that won't throw a hammer at my face if they return from lunch all coked up. It makes good sense to protect the other employees from a possible loose cannon. As for abusers beating the test, I've known lots of guys that tried, but they all got caught."

Choosing a testing facilitator

Look for a drug testing facilitator that follows the "Gold Standard" guidelines established by the federal government to assure that your shop's drug testing is being conducted in a fair, accurate, and legal method. Gold Standard testing has withstood legal challenge and been upheld by various courts. Not conducting drug testing at this standard may expose your shop to needless liability. Gold Standard drug testing consists of:

• Specimen collection by a trained collector using a strict chain of custody

• Testing of specimens at a SAMHSA or CAP/FUDT certified laboratory

• Testing of at least the five common illicit drugs, referred to as the "NIDA 5" at appropriate cutoff levels

• Integrity testing (testing for adulterants and dilution)

• GC/MS (gas chromatography, mass spectrometry) confirmation of all initial positive specimens

• Certified Medical Officer Review (MRO) on all results, negative or positive, with confidential reporting to a designated representative at your company

To cut costs, some third-party administrators (TPA) of drug testing programs don't use certified laboratories or provide comprehensive MRO services, instead using instant testing kits not approved by the FDA for workplace testing. Others charge extra for integrity and confirmation testing. Taking shortcuts trying to save a few dollars could very well expose you to expensive liability.

Drug and alcohol testing is the most effective way to deter substance abuse in your workplace, a quick way to improve employee performance and reduce employee costs. With the right TPA, drug and alcohol testing, monitoring, and intervention is affordable, comprehensive, and confidential. It can be as convenient as having the TPA come to your shop, saving you time and money due to travel time and expense to and from the nearest testing facility.

Good substance abuse testing companies will provide you with the necessary paperwork that will fully explain the level of intervention for your particular shop, and paperwork for your employees to sign certifying they have read and will abide by the terms of the policy or risk being fired with no recourse to L&I benefits.

As a business owner, you have the option of setting your shop substance abuse acceptable level anywhere from zero-tolerance to counseling to intervention, applied equally to all your employees, without favoritism. If your shop policy is giving any employee who fails the drug and/or alcohol testing a second chance, some TPAs offer affordable employee assistance services that include:

• Assessment, referral, follow up and case management of employees and family members for up to two years or more

• 24/7 hotline access for employees and their family members

• Supervisor training and employee orientation

• Supervisor Consultation

• All promotional materials-including wallet card and brochures

• Quarterly newsletter for employees and family members

• Quarterly newsletter for human resource staff, supervisors, and managers

In the end, how you operate your business is your business. But if you see the many benefits of running it as a drug and/or alcohol free facility, the help you need to accomplish this end is near at hand.

In a perfect world, considering that insurers would save money through insuring clean shops, they would step up to the plate to cover the costs of conducting abuse testing programs. If enough business owners and repair associations were to press this issue, insurers might be forced to cover the costs to test and monitor substance abusing employees.

Dick Strom, Modern Collision Rebuild, 9270 Miller Road, NE, Bainbridge Island, Washington 98110; (206) 842-3621; e-mail: moderncol@qwest.net.