Avoiding Drug Testing Will Not Solve the Labor Shortage Problem

Eliminating mandatory drug testing does not mean more qualified applicants or help employers save money.
By Michael Berneking
May 31, 2022

As businesses continue to recover from the pandemic-induced recession, construction firms are getting back on track with build projects while hoping to take advantage of the projected business growth for 2022. Despite the anticipated increase in projects, construction firms continue to be impacted by the ongoing labor shortage crisis. To offset labor shortages, some construction firms are revisiting their hiring standards. Most notably, they’re rethinking the necessity of performing workplace drug testing.

An employment outlook survey conducted by ManpowerGroup in Q4 2021 revealed 9% of more than 45,000 companies worldwide were eliminating job screens or drug tests to incentivize candidates and retain high-demand talent. It’s likely that many construction firms will fall into this category of companies eliminating drug screens to attract more job candidates. And in light of the abundance of laws nationwide legalizing—and in some cases, protecting cannabis use—more construction firms may follow suit.

The cost of not drug testing

By not making drug testing mandatory, construction firms hope to increase their applicant pool. In some cases, a firm may elect not to require drug testing to circumvent the associated costs. Like any business, the bottom line is a driving force. Construction firms need a workforce to compete for build projects. And the pressure to meet project deadlines creates a greater need to sidestep the labor shortage issue. But evidence does not suggest that eliminating mandatory drug testing opens the door for more qualified applicants; nor does it indicate that employers save money in the long run.

The National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence estimates that substance use disorders cost employers billions annually through worksite accidents, workers’ compensation claims, lost productivity and absenteeism, turnover and recruitment costs, as well as disability and the associated medical care costs. For better perspective on the financial impact substance misuse can have on a construction site, the National Safety Council (NSC) has developed a substance use cost calculator for employers. Leveraging data compiled by the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, this calculator allows a business to enter basic information, including company size, location and industry to estimate the annual cost of managing substance use disorders in the workplace. For example, the estimated costs of managing workplace substance misuse for a Texas-based construction firm with 80 employees could exceed $101,832 annually. The cost breakdown would be as follows:

  • $31,280 in lost time;
  • $45,190 in job turnover and retraining; and
  • $25,362 in health care costs.

So, while building a workforce to generate revenue may be a company’s key motivation for not drug testing, data reveals that a company stands to lose rather than gain.

Drug testing is about more than deterrence

While workplace drug testing can be effective at deterring illicit drug and alcohol use, there are secondary benefits. Drug testing can help identify employees with serious, underlying health conditions that are manifested through substance misuse.

Mental health has become a leading issue in the workplace, especially since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s not uncommon for construction employees to self-medicate due to chronic pain caused by work, but other important factors can play a pivotal role in an employee’s decision to self-medicate. An employee dealing with factors like work-related stress, job dissatisfaction or a family crisis may use drugs and/or alcohol as coping mechanisms, developing an overdependence that could evolve into a substance use disorder.

By drug testing, an employer can identify an employee struggling with substance dependence, and actionable steps can be taken toward recovery. For every construction employee in recovery, a firm can save an estimated $4,000 in turnover and recruitment costs and up to $8,400 in lost productivity. And these figures only account for some of the advantages of helping an employee recover from substance dependence. Other advantages, such as higher employee morale and better overall worksite safety, can be invaluable.

Occupational health benefits, risks and best practices

One of the obvious benefits of workplace drug testing is the potential to increase OSHA recordable incidents at construction sites. Cornell University conducted a national study composed of small construction companies (i.e., firms with up to 20 employees) with drug testing programs. According to the study, companies that tested job candidates and employees for drugs experienced a 51% average reduction in work injury rates within two years of program implementation. Larger firms with a drug-testing program experienced a 14% average reduction over the same two-year period. The overall injury rate at construction companies that tested for drug use dropped from 4.46 to 2.18 incidents (per 100,000 worker hours) following drug testing program implementation.

Similar to the aforementioned benefit, some primary risks of not having a drug-testing program are also evident. Drug use in the workplace can have a significantly adverse effect on productivity and employee turnover. On top of the costs associated with worksite incidents and injuries resulting from substance misuse, employers could also face higher workers’ compensation insurance premiums, costly litigation and a tarnished business reputation.

Contractors should follow occupational health and safety guidance passed down by local, state and federal regulators. Firms should weigh the risks of having a potentially impaired employee at a jobsite and all the costs—tangible and intangible—those risks may entail. When referencing the national survey of small construction companies conducted by Cornell University, almost 75% of the survey respondents noted that the benefits of drug testing outweighed the costs. Construction firms should also consider industry data along with their record of worksite accidents involving employees under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

Maintaining a drug-free culture still matters

Construction continues to rank high among the most dangerous industries. Along with transportation, construction accounts for roughly half of all fatal occupational injuries. Eliminating drug testing does not beget more qualified applicants. Instead of wondering if drug testing is reducing the applicant pool, contractors should ask themselves if they want a construction employee using drugs—whether legal or not—on or arriving at a jobsite potentially impaired from off-duty use? Does that fit with the best safety practices, or does that increase risk of an OSHA recordable incident? And can a workforce not drug-tested potentially increase the company’s costs downstream? Based on the data collected, it’s fair to deduce that there is a definite return on investment for having a workplace substance awareness program.

Drug and alcohol test results may not be infallible indicators of work performance or potential, but studies continually identify an undeniable correlation between substance misuse and compromised workplace safety. Because of these findings and the associated health and safety risks in the industry, it is to construction employers’ advantage to establish drug and alcohol standards to detect the use of illicit substances and to help protect and preserve their existing workforce.

by Michael Berneking
Michael Berneking, MD, FACOEM, FAAFP, FAASM, is a Concentra medical center director and board-certified family physician with extensive experience in occupational and environmental medicine. He is a certified medical review officer (MRO), senior aviation medical examiner, and an active member of the Concentra Transportation Medical Expert Panel. Dr. Berneking has expertise with onsite medical care in the industrial setting, which includes acute care, corporate wellness, and preventive care. Dr. Berneking is also a U.S. Army flight surgeon and civil surgeon.

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