Many entrees to test for drugs, but be consistent, fair

We all know that impaired individuals in the workplace, any workplace, are a huge risk to companies. As such, most companies have at least some level of drug policy establishing the rules, enforcement and consequences for employees.

It seems simple enough, but in today’s world of synthetic drugs, an opioids crisis, medical marijuana, etc. – it has become considerably more complicated.

Establishing a good and fair drug policy is critical. A good policy protects the business and employees.

It must be consistent and balance the safety of the work environment with the reasonable needs of individuals. (Remember, not all drugs are bad, so companies must be careful to not affect the livelihood of innocent people).

Employers are challenged with a host of decisions to make, and there is no one right answer.

If you should test, when to test, what to test for, how to test and what to do if someone tests positive all are key questions that the employer can choose to address in its policy.

But many times it all starts with when to test for drugs and alcohol.

There are several scenarios that are common, established practice for when to test.


Establishing illegal drug use before the employee begins working is a good way to avoid inheriting issues. Candidates can be sent for a drug screen as part of the hiring process with the outcome being a condition of employment.

Companies very serious about substance abuse in the workplace will choose not to announce that a drug or alcohol screen is needed until immediately before sending the person for the test. This prevents the candidate from “preparing” for the test.


Many companies test employees for substance abuse anytime an injury occurs. Because of the liability and cost associated with injuries, companies owe it to other employees and the business health in general to look at the cause of any injury for future prevention.

Determining if impairment played a role in the injury is just as important as any other factor.

OSHA myth alert: There is a common myth that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration has a standard against post-injury testing because it discourages employees from reporting injuries for fear of the drug screen.

That is false. The pitfalls where post-injury testing can lead to citations are generally scenarios where drug testing is correlated improperly with disciplinary or incentive actions. Post-injury testing done as part of a consistent, fair policy is permissible.


While often this is synonymous with post-injury, not all accidents result in injury, so some companies differentiate between the two.

Common accident/incident examples are automobile accidents, hitting a structure with a forklift or excessive damage to product.


This scenario has the greatest risk because it relies on human judgment.

When an employee is witnessed by management to be exhibiting signs that can be reasonably suspected as being caused by impairment, a company can order testing based on a reasonable suspicion policy. There are potential consequences if the accusation is made incorrectly.

The best thing a company can do to protect itself is educate managers to accurately identify signs of substance abuse. It reduces the risk of false accusations and shows equity if a false identification is made and challenged.

Other tips to protect the company would be to document all details leading to the accusation, and, if possible, have multiple managers observe the employee and document the finding of both.


This is a good practice to keep everyone honest. Some instances require it (for example, Department of Transportation regulations). For those where it’s not required, having a random testing program communicates the company’s value on a drug-free workplace and sends a clear message to employees.

Key elements to a formal program include:

¡ Establishment of timing (quarterly, monthly, etc.).

¡ An unannounced and unpredictable date for testing.

¡ A set percentage of employees who will be tested each time.

¡ A clear definition of which employees are eligible to be selected for random testing. The safest is to make all employees eligible, but it’s also possible to focus on certain groups if they are clearly defined (for example, only safety-sensitive job titles are randomly tested).

¡ An objective methodology for the random selection process. Many companies will use a third party for selection and administration, solely to shield themselves from accusation of favoritism or retaliation.


When applied, any of the above “whens” for performing drug and alcohol testing can reduce the safety risks posed by substance use and abuse in the workplace.

Most importantly, defining and implementing a thorough policy and testing program is a visible declaration on how much an employer values a drug-free, safety culture.

Scott Appnel is the manager of marketing and client engagement at Lehigh Valley Health Network’s occupational medicine practice, HealthWorks, working solely with local businesses and organizations to meet their occupational health needs. He can be reached at

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