Workplace drug testing is conducted to detect the presence of controlled substances, illicit drugs, alcohol, or some kinds of prescription medication. It is part of many drug-free workplace programs meant to create a safe environment for all employees.
A drug testing program for employment can happen in federal and non-federal offices depending on the employer mandates, but they should always comply with local, state, and federal laws.
How do drug tests work?
Drug testing can be conducted in the workplace or at a clinic. A test typically costs between $30–$50, most often covered by the employer.
A drug test is done by a trained collector who visits the work space and collects samples from the employees to send to a lab.
How samples are analyzed
In the lab, a specialist will check the various samples for metabolites, or drug residues that remain in the body some time after the effects of a drug have worn off.
Different drugs stay in the body for different durations, so if a metabolite is found during testing, it means that a substance has been taken within a recent window of time.
Different types of workplace drug testing
Drug tests will vary based on the specific drug being tested for and what kind of samples are collected as outlined in the testing program.
The main methods of drug testing for the workplace:
Alcohol testing (breath-alcohol test). In alcohol testing, a person breathes into a device that shows the level of alcohol in the blood at that time, or Blood Alcohol Concentration (BAC). The legal limit for driving in most states is a BAC of 0.08, but for Department of Transportation regulations, a BAC of greater than 0.04 may be grounds for removal. Alcohol testing only tests for alcohol substance abuse, not other substances.
Blood tests. A blood test measures the actual amount of drugs or alcohol in the blood at the time of testing. Blood testing has a shorter detection period, and therefore is a better indicator of recent consumption.
Hair testing. A hair test is the least invasive method of drug testing, which also provides a longer detection window. A sample of your hair is taken to determine an employee’s drug history within the past 90 days. Hair testing can only show past use of a substance, and does not test for alcohol use.
Oral sample/saliva or fluid sample. A swab of the inner cheek is taken to collect saliva (oral fluids). This method is most beneficial to determine current drug use or impairment, and often is better at detecting use of marijuana, cocaine, and amphetamines.
Sweat sample. A skin patch, much like a band-aid, is applied to the skin and worn over time to collect sweat from the employee which can be tested to determine substance use. This is a simple method of drug testing, but is mainly used for parole or rehabilitation rather than workplace drug tests.
Urine testing (urinalysis). A urine sample (30-45 mL) is collected from employees and examined for metabolites. A urine test is generally recommended to check for illicit and prescription drug abuse since alcohol passes through the system much quicker.
Testing according to circumstances or at set times
Annual physicals. As part of an annual physical exam, employees may be tested for alcohol or drug use and required to send the information to employers as part of the exam.
DOT (Department of Transportation) drug testing. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) requires that anyone with a commercial vehicle license (CDL) undergo regular drug and alcohol testing. If you have a CDL, your employer may conduct random drug tests, annual drug tests, or other tests as indicated to comply with FMCSA regulations.
Pre-employment tests. Prospective employees may be required to pass a drug test for employment.
Post-accident tests. If an accident happens in the workplace, a drug test can be used to determine if alcohol or drug abuse was the cause.
Post-treatment tests. If employees are returning to work from any kind of rehabilitation program, post-treatment testing can ensure they remain drug free and help encourage them to refrain from substance abuse.
Reasonable suspicion tests (random drug testing). If an employee is showing any signs of being unfit for duty, or who exhibits a pattern of unsafe behavior or substance abuse, they may have to take a random drug test to protect the safety and wellbeing of the employee and coworkers.
Drug test results
Depending on the drug test administered, results can take anywhere from 24 hours to a few days.
To ensure the accuracy of the drug testing services, the samples will be sent to an HHS-certified laboratory. A Medical Review Officer (MRO) – a licensed physician trained in substance use disorders – will interpret the test results along with the employee’s medical history and other relevant information.
After the MRO reviews the samples, they will submit the results to the employer.
Negative results indicate that the employee has not consumed alcohol or illicit drugs in the recent past, while a positive test result does indicate some form of recent substance use.
If the tests indicate positive use of substances, the employee may be referred for treatment, rehabilitation, or disciplinary action.
Employees of safety-sensitive industries (such as the Department of Defense or Department of Transportation) who test positive for substances in their sample have the right to get their sample tested by another HHS lab to eliminate the possibility of a false positive.
FAQs about workplace drug testing
Although the terms can be used interchangeably, a drug screen is different from a drug test. A drug screen is a cost-effective approach with faster results. However, a drug screening can sometimes give false-positive readings to certain drugs. A drug test offers more reliable and accurate analysis of substance use, and is preferred over screening.
Drug testing is commonly used for the following five categories of illegal drugs:
- Phencyclidine (PCP)
Drug tests can also evaluate use of the following recreation or prescription drugs:
- Ethanol (alcohol)
- MDMA (Ecstasy)
Different drugs stay in the body for different amounts of time. In addition, a variety of factors determine how long drugs last in someone’s system.
- Body Mass Index (BMI)
- Metabolic rate
- Hydration levels
- Drug tolerance
- Frequency drug(s) are used
- Medical conditions that prevent drug elimination
- Type and amount of drug(s) used
- The half-life of the drug(s)
- The presence of other substances in the body
Additionally, the type of drug test used has a different detection window.