Safety

Saying No to Drug Testing and Yes to Impairment Testing

Construction and other industries are seeing a shift from drug testing to impairment testing—part of an effort to boost safety, cut costs and attract and retain talent.
By Scott Berman
November 1, 2023
Topics
Safety

When discussions started heating up in Maryland several years ago about a statewide referendum to legalize recreational marijuana, Ted Wooden and his colleagues at Wilmot Modular Structures realized they needed to get ahead of the curve. For Wooden, operations director at the Baltimore-area company, this potential new legal reality meant it would be prudent to find a way to quickly assess if and to what degree employees were impaired.

Wilmot’s proactive stance was well founded. Voters overwhelmingly approved legalization in November 2022, making Maryland the 20th state to do so. The new law went into effect this past July.

As Wooden sees it, the key is to remove what he calls the “gray area” of drug testing—that is, when there is a substance present but it’s unclear whether the employee is under the influence. Traditional biometric tests detect the presence, whether or not it results in impairment. However, what Wooden sought was “some kind of test to see if the employee is with us that day, mentally as well as physically, or if they’re under the influence,” he says. “Marijuana is the big thing, but it could be alcohol, or it could be anything,” including fatigue, prescription medications or even stress. Indeed, those other factors are important ones in today’s impairment landscape.

TESTING, TESTING

Wooden soon learned about impairment detection technology, which the National Safety Council defines as “technology with the potential to screen for multiple forms of impairment in order to aid in fitness for work assessments.” In a 2021 report, NSC identified 15 companies offering eight types of IDT, the most commonly used being oculomotor-based, with other types including psychomotor vigilance testing, head movement/motion, body movement/motion and full-body scan.

Wilmot uses a product from Impairment Science called Druid, a touchscreen app that is loaded onto employees’ phones and tests for impairment by assessing how quickly and accurately they respond to a video-game-like series of prompts. Employees take the one-minute test each workday morning, with their responses measured against their own previously established baseline; the cost averages $75 per employee per year.

The app detects impairment, not its cause. If the data shows that a worker is impaired, Wilmot follows its human-resources policies to guide conversations with them. Druid also is connected to a data-management system that identifies “workforce patterns, such as when people are most fatigued and in which locations,” according to Impairment Science Chief Operations Officer Chris Bensley.

FROM PUNITIVE TO PREVENTIVE

Such changing technologies, attitudes and laws related to impairment in the workplace signal a “paradigm shift” in the view of Peter Simon, director of plans, programs and medtech for Druid partner Gallagher Bassett Technical Services, a New Jersey–based consulting group with a number of construction clients in New York State. The shift, Simon says, is from “a 1980s style of punitive drug and alcohol programs” to a focus on impairment and safety.

Driving the change: technology and new laws offering protections—at least in New York—for employees who test positive at work due to the lawful use of substances outside of the workplace. Another factor fueling the change, Simon says, is the fact that requiring biometric testing for drugs increasingly means that employers “probably are going to have a hard time attracting and retaining talent.”

IDT constitutes an alternative to conventional biometric testing. The NSC report details potential benefits of using IDT including real-time objectivity, privacy, comprehensive detection, prevention and cost savings. Indeed, an NSC cost calculator indicates that substance abuse could cost a construction company in Maryland that has 400 employees about $548,000 a year in lost time, job turnover, retraining and health care; in New York, the cost would be more than $617,000.

Other potential cost savings that Bensley points to include improved insurance ratings that could save “thousands of dollars in insurance premiums” within a year as well as reduced worker’s compensation claims.

MAKING THE DECISION

Of course, it’s still relatively early days for IDT. Barriers to adoption can include standard roadblocks such as employee resistance to change and management hesitancy, as well as upfront costs and the time it takes to find the right solution. Perhaps not surprisingly, NSC found that just 16% of employees reported using such technology, with almost a third indicating no knowledge of IDT.

Further, there are “concerns about turning workers away,” Bensley says, while noting that detecting impairment doesn’t automatically mean a worker is sent home, but instead could “mean that they just have to rest for a while, or maybe do a less strenuous job that day.” Along those lines, Wooden adds: “My employees actually feel better knowing that we’re requiring people to take the test, because they know the person they’re working beside is not strung-out on drugs and possibly getting them hurt.”

Bensley urges companies that are exploring their employee testing options to “revisit your policy. Make sure that you are working to give your employees the support that they need.”

“You should look at [impairment issues] holistically and come up with a policy that makes sense” in terms of safety, the law, labor, human resources, costs and reliability, according to Simon. Plus, there is the need to focus on impairment as opposed to punitive steps. Simon says: “It’s the sort of thing that is impacting a lot of stakeholders.”

by Scott Berman
Scott Berman is a freelance writer based in Wayne, New Jersey. For additional information and resources about safety, visit abc.org/safety.

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