Fighting drug abuse on the job site

August 11, 2010

According to the government's Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 14% of full-time construction workers aged 18-49 were drug users in 1998, second only to bartenders, waiters and waitresses, and food preparers (19%). Even if you cut that figure in half, there are still a lot of drug users on America's job sites.

Last month, Avitar Inc., an employee drug-testing company based in Canton, Mass., held an executive briefing in Washington with experts representing contractors, unions, and risk and insurance brokerages. The comments of the participants provide a sobering look at this never-ending problem. Some highlights:

  • "Construction workers know which companies drug test and which ones don't."—Laura Jargo-Fowler, Mid-Atlantic director for loss control and safety, Turner Construction.

  • "Education is important; however, drug testing provides the highest level of deterrence to on-the-job drug abuse and the best ROI."—Joseph J. Poliafico, director of human resources and risk management, The Facchina Group.

  • "At certain locations, our pre-employment testing positive rate is 50%."—James McAninch, United Steelworkers of America.

  • "Just having a writing drug policy is not enough."—Chris Poe, senior risk engineer, Zurich Risk Engineering.

  • "Employees need to know that it's not OK to use a friend's prescription pain meds."—Danny Minnix, corporate safety director, The Branch Group.

One of the emerging problems is the use of prescription painkillers, such as OxyContin, Vicodin, and Percocet. The United Steelworkers' McAninch said that painkillers "represent 30% of our drug problem," adding that their illicit use is becoming "very prevalent" with the aging of the construction workforce.

Contractors cannot rely on urine testing, because it's too easy to beat the test. Minnix, the safety director at the Branch Group, tells why: "I have seen people with … bags of urine under their arms and a tube running down their arm. It's impossible to detect these devices unless the bag breaks or something leaks."

That's why contractors are using oral-based testing. Here's Minnix again: "You should have seen the shock factor when employees realized that we were going to test with oral fluid. They knew they weren't going to be able to beat it. Oral fluid testing is also less expensive for employees, as you don't have to send them off-site."

Responsible contractors and unions are trying their best to cut down the risk of drug abuse on the job site, which is only going to get worse. The coming threat: methamphetamines, particularly crystal meth. "If you haven't seen a problem with meth in your company, you will," said the United Steelworkers' McAninch. "It is inexpensive, very addictive, and very destructive."

"Construction Safety & Drug Abuse" can be found at:


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