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Workplace Drug Testing More Important Than Ever
By Dr. David Wehby


The COVID-19 pandemic brought more attention to the health and safety of employees in the workforce. This was a good thing. While the bulk of this attention revolved around preventing spread of the virus, maintaining an all-encompassing employee health and wellness strategy remains vitally important. This includes workplace drug testing and addressing substance abuse by employees.

COVID-19 increased stress on everyone. Behavioral health experts agree that multiple challenges of the past year (health concerns, financial pressures, family problems, isolation) were stressors that exacerbated substance-abuse disorders. This led to an increase in drug and alcohol use affecting people at home and in the workplace.

The National Council of Alcoholism and Drug Dependence (NCADD) reports that 70 percent of Americans who use illegal drugs are currently employed. Workplace drug testing is more important than ever before so employers can maintain a safe, drug-free environment.

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), 13% of Americans reported starting or increasing substance use as a way of coping with stress or emotions prompted by COVID-19.

Drug-free initiatives and workplace testing became somewhat more complicated to administer as the coronavirus crisis unfolded. Employers may have faced logistical issues when requesting drug-testing. Previously, employers would routinely send new hires and impaired employees to an occupational health facility for drug screening. Some of these facilities were temporarily closed or were being used for COVID-19 testing in the early days of the stay-at-home orders. As a result, some employers decided to forgo pre-employment drug-testing altogether. Others put testing on hold, notifying new hires they would be tested at a later date, once the pandemic subsided. 


Drug testing is available during the pandemic
Advocate Aurora continues to offer pre-employment and reasonable-suspicion drug testing, also known as “for-cause” or “probable-cause” testing, when needed. More steps may need to be taken because of COVID-screening protocols, but testing is available to all needing it.

Employers, especially those who dropped pre-employment drug screens, may be relying on “reasonable suspicion” of on-the-job impairment. If employers are testing for impairment, they should train their managers and supervisors on how to reasonably observe and document when someone is working under the influence. In a socially-distanced workplace, it may be more difficult to witness signs of impairment firsthand.

As a reminder, reasonable-suspicion testing could be prompted by observing one or more of these signs:
• Unusual body or breath odor
• Deterioration in appearance/grooming
• Questionable movements (unsteady walk, twitching or staggering) 
• Bloodshot, dilated or watery eyes 
• Unexplained sweating or shivering  
• Slurred speech or an inability to verbalize
• Argumentative, irritable or drowsy behavior

Behavioral signs of impairment often include attendance problems (tardiness, a pattern of absences or excessive absenteeism) and/or a decline in performance and productivity.
  
Opioid, stimulant use compounds the problem
Across the country drug overdoses have spiked since the onset of the pandemic. A federal reporting system called the Overdose Detection Mapping Application Program (ODMAP) showed that early months of the pandemic brought an 18% nationwide increase in drug overdoses, compared with the same timeframe the prior year.

Preliminary numbers from the Wisconsin Department of Health Services show that suspected opioid overdoes in Wisconsin increased 117% at the start of the pandemic compared to the year before. The rise of opioid and stimulant use in Wisconsin has compounded drug and alcohol problems already present in our state. The need for workplace drug testing should be obvious.

Monitor for impairment; offer help to those needing it
HR professionals know that workplace drug testing helps prevent accidents, related health issues and excessive absenteeism. People struggling with drug and alcohol abuse will bring their personal problems into the workplace, either directly or indirectly. To address substance abuse issues, employers are encouraged to promote programs such as an Employee Assistance Program (EAP).

Employees who come to work impaired put themselves, their coworkers and their employer at great risk. Addressing this problem by maintaining a fair, consistent drug testing program — even in the midst of a pandemic — can improve productivity and promote proper usage of company-sponsored medical benefits.

For educational video resources on Opioid Management, visit:

To learn more about pre-employment and reasonable-suspicion drug testing services for your organization, check out Advocate Aurora Employer Solutions. A solution customized to your company’s culture could also include employer clinics, wellness, occupational health, executive health programs and more.  


David Wehby MD, FAAFP is an Occupational Health Physician with Advocate Aurora Health.

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