Workplace, Drug Use in the

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Workplace, Drug Use in the

Drug use by employees and workers has become an important issue for American business. Employers of all types (large and small businesses, nonprofit organizations, government, and so on) are concerned about illegal drug use because it has serious effects on job performance, productivity , safety, and health. Most of the illegal drug users in the United States are employed. According to the 2000 National Household Survey on Drug Abuse, of the estimated 11.8 million illegal drug users over age 18, 9.1 million (77 percent) were employed either full or part time.

Because of increasing concerns about drug abuse by workers, most business organizations have established written policies on drug use and require drug testing of workers. Most also offer employee education and employee assistance programs for workers with a drug problem. Programs in the workplace reach out to workers and their

 Current IllicitCurrent Heavy
Occupational Category Drug Use Alcohol Use
Executive, Administrative & Managerial8.97.1
Professional Specialty5.14.4
Technicians & Related Support7.05.1
Administrative Support3.25.1
Protective Service3.07.8
Food Preparation, Waiters, Waitresses & Bartenders18.715.0
Other Service12.511.4
Precision Production & Repair4.411.6
Extractive & Precision Production4.45.5
Machine Operators & Inspectors8.99.0
Transportation & Material Moving10.010.8
Handlers, Helpers & Laborers6.513.5
source: Office of Applied Studies, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, National Household Survey on Drug Abuse, 1994 and 1997. <>.

families. As a result, the workplace has become an effective place for drug prevention, treatment, and rehabilitation efforts.

The Development of Workplace Drug Policies

When drug-free workplace programs began in the 1960s, they had many critics. Drug testing of employees was controversial because early drug testing methods were poor and workers were concerned about individual rights and privacy. The U.S. military began to conduct drug testing in 1971, and was the first workplace to offer treatment, rather than punishment, to those who tested positive for drug use. In 1980 new technology became available that provided reliable, inexpensive testing methods for marijuana and other commonly abused drugs. This development, along with the military's commitment to addressing the drug problem among its personnel, was pivotal in the decision to begin widespread drug testing and to begin strict policies forbidding the illegal use of drugs on or off the job.

In the 1980s the National Transportation Safety Board discovered that drugs were involved in railroad and airline accidents. The transportation and utility industries then adopted drug-free workplace policies for employees in positions that affected public safety. Early drug-free policies required that drug-using employees be fired. Many businesses were uncomfortable with this approach, especially when the employees' drug use did not pose a threat to anyone except the users themselves. Today's drug-free workplace policies take a more positive, helping-hand approach. These policies have two basic purposes: (1) to minimize the risk of hiring drug users by testing job applicants for illegal drugs, and (2) to get the substance-abusing employee into treatment and back on the job.

Drug Testing

The federal government encourages and in some instances requires both public and private businesses to develop drug-free workplace programs. For example, the Federal Railroad Administration began hearings on drug rules for the railroad industry in 1984 and issued regulations requiring the testing of employees as well as other policies. These federal regulations went into effect in 1986. In September 1986, President Ronald W. Reagan issued an executive order that required all federal government agencies to develop drug-free workplace programs to ensure that the more than 2 million federal employees were not illegally using drugs on or off the job. In the same decade, the Department of Transportation (DOT) issued regulations for the transportation industries, such as the airlines, trucking, railroad, and mass transit companies. These regulations required: (1) written policies prohibiting the illegal use of drugs on or off the job, and (2) drug testing of employees before being hired, if their boss had reasons to suspect drug use, and after any accident, and random drug testing for workers in specified safety-sensitive occupations. Congress passed the Drug-Free Workplace Act of 1988, which requires all federal grant recipients and most federal contractors to certify that they will provide a drug-free workplace. In general, the law required employers to:

  1. Develop and publish a written policy and ensure that employees read and consent to the policy as a condition of employment.
  2. Initiate an awareness program to educate employees about the dangers of drug abuse, the company's drug-free workplace policy, any available drug counseling, employee assistance programs, and the penalties that may be imposed on employees for drug-abuse violations.
  3. Require that all employees notify the employer or contractor of any conviction for a drug offense in the workplace.
  4. Make an ongoing effort to maintain a drug-free workplace. Nothing in the law required companies to test their employees for drugs. However, as a side effect of fulfilling the act, most companies did create drug-testing policies.

By the end of the twentieth century, these drug-testing regulations affected nearly 10 percent of the entire U.S. workforce.

After a major subway accident in New York City in 1994, the DOT regulations expanded to include alcohol. The engineer involved in the accident was found to be using both alcohol and drugs. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission also issued regulations requiring written policies and extensive testing of personnel at nuclear sites. Other government agencies, for example, the Department of Energy, also expanded their policies on drug and alcohol use.

The Prevalence of Drug-Free Workplace Programs

In 1988 the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) surveyed businesses throughout the United States about their policies on drug abuse. The survey found that half the nation's nonagricultural workforce was employed by organizations with a formal policy on drugs, and that 20 percent of paid workers were employed in establishments with some type of drug-testing program. In the years since the BLS survey, the number of corporate and other employers and the employees covered by these policies has continued to increase sharply. A 2001 survey by the American Management Association indicates that more than two-thirds of major businesses surveyed employees for illegal drug use. Nearly 20 percent select employees for random testing as part of the drug-free workplace effort. For most American companies, the drug- free workplace concept has become a standard business practice. A person seeking employment in the United States will most likely have to pass a drug test to get the job.

The drug test itself is a crucial but often controversial part of a standard drug-free workplace policy. The question of whether to use drug-testing technology raises many difficult issues—moral, social, ethical, medical, scientific, and legal. Many citizens are very concerned that drug testing is an invasion of a person's civil rights and freedoms. They view the drug-testing process, generally collection of urine, as degrading and dehumanizing. Some people question whether the goal of a drug-free workplace justifies requiring workers to provide urine samples on random demand. Unions and civil libertarians often ask, Where will it stop? Where do you draw the line? Some fear that demands for employee AIDS testing and pregnancy testing will be the next workplace battlegrounds.

Government employees, unions, and civil libertarians argue strongly that drug testing is an invasion of privacy and constitutes an illegal search and seizure (of body fluids). Therefore, they argue, such actions violate individual rights guaranteed by the Constitution. In general, constitutional protections apply only to testing conducted and required by government agencies (federal, state, and local). Therefore, employee drug testing conducted by private employers is not covered by the constitutional safeguards. However, government-mandated drug testing of employees in the private sector (for example, transportation and nuclear power workers) must be in accordance with the Constitution. Several of these constitutional questions have been brought before the Supreme Court. In general, the Court has upheld drug testing when safety or security is a concern.

Management and workers continue to struggle with a number of drug-testing issues. Some question the accuracy and reliability of drug testing. One repeated concern relates to the quality of the laboratories offering drug-testing services. To combat this complaint, Congress required strict technical and scientific procedures for federal workplace drug-testing programs, as well as standards for all laboratories in 1987. A national laboratory certification program was also begun to ensure the quality of drug testing done in laboratories. The use of a government-certified lab has become the standard by which drug-testing programs are measured. These tough federal standards have nearly eliminated concerns about drug-testing accuracy and reliability. In addition, better testing technology will continue to be developed, making it much more difficult for the casual drug user to escape detection. Urine testing may be replaced by tests of saliva and sweat, making the test procedure less objectionable.

Employee Assistance Programs

A vital part of workplace drug policies is employee assistance programs (EAPs). EAPs were developed in the 1970s to focus on alcohol abuse and to assist employees in dealing with the stresses of employment and personal life. Typically, EAPs provide short-term counseling and make referrals for employees who need treatment or long-term counseling. These programs also conduct management training and health workshops and seminars on topics such as quitting smoking and losing weight.

As managers began to develop drug policies, they struggled with the question of what to do if they discovered that an employee was using drugs. Generally, corporate lawyers and security officers would suggest dismissing the employee, while corporate medical and EAP staff would recommend treatment. The issue proved difficult to resolve for many corporations. The cost of treatment and the uncertainty of success weighed heavily on the minds of financial officers responsible for making a profit in a bad economy. Most corporations have set aside resources for EAPs to implement the helping-hand approach.

EAPs also faced problems when asked to take part in an antidrug effort. Some EAP providers had difficulty expanding their programs to deal with illegal drug users. People who abuse illegal drugs have different needs and present different issues from, for example, people who have a drinking problem. EAP counselors promise to keep their clients' substance-abuse problems confidential, but they may feel troubled about not reporting illegal drug use. Also, EAP providers may feel pressure to "cure" an employee's drug problem—before that employee is fired. Despite these problems, EAPs not only help employees but are also a good investment because they help companies maintain experienced, healthy workers. New training programs in substance abuse for EAP professionals have made the EAP provider more skilled in dealing with the drug-using employee.

A Difficult Balance

Employers face a difficult balancing act when upholding their drug- abuse policies. On the one hand, many employers feel a moral obligation to do all they can to achieve a drug-free workplace. They have corporate responsibilities to provide a healthy and safe workplace for all employees and to protect investors in their companies from financial losses resulting from drug abuse. On the other hand, employers have obligations to their workers—to respect the individual rights and civil liberties of loyal and trustworthy employees (who for the most part are not involved with drugs). Striking a balance between these two obligations is a continuing challenge for employers. For the most part, members of the U.S. business community agree that the workplace is an appropriate site for confronting drug abuse. They have sent a clear message to the workforce and to the community that drug use will not be tolerated.


Although drug abuse in the workplace is still a significant concern of American employers, substantial progress has been made since the early 1980s. Accidents, absenteeism (not showing up for work), and positive drug tests have all declined. In the future, workplaces are likely to continue expanding drug-testing and employee assistance programs. As the country has gained confidence in the accuracy and reliability of drug testing, lower thresholds will be permitted that will make it much more difficult for the casual user to escape detection. There is new technology becoming available to test saliva and sweat for drugs that will minimize the intrusiveness of the testing process. Educating high-school and college students that they must be drug- free to get and hold a job will contribute to the reduction of drug abuse among young people. Workplace efforts are the most organized drug education, prevention, and treatment programs in the country today, and will most likely grow and expand. They may be one of the best ways to solve the drug problem in America.

see also Costs of Substance Abuse and Dependence, Economic; Drug Testing Methods and Analysis; Schools, Drug Use in.


The real victim of the war on drugs might be the constitutional rights of the American people.

Richard Matsch, U.S. District Court Judge, 1989.