Drug testing is the process wherein companies utilize the resources of scientific laboratories to determine whether any of their employees use illegal drugs. Drug testing, which most commonly requires workers to submit urine samples for analysis, is utilized in businesses and industries throughout the United States, although the practice continues to generate controversy. Proponents argue that it has been an effective deterrent, and that employers have the right to know if their employees are engaging in behavior that can damage the company. Opponents contend, however, that the practice violates fundamental individual rights and can have a corrosive effect on workplace morale.

Drug testing became a popular element of corporate safety and productivity policies during the 1970s and 1980s, as awareness heightened of the serious impact that substance abuse can have on business efficiency and profitability. During this period, companies of all shapes and sizes began to turn to drug testing as a method of curbing substance abuse among the members of their workforce. Large corporations were by and large the leaders in this trend, but many small-and mid-sized companies implemented drug testing policies as well. By 1996, an American Management Association survey indicated that more than 80 percent of responding employers required workers to submit to drug tests on at least a "random testing" basis. That percentage dropped by more than 10 percent by 1999, and observers believe that the number is actually lower since small companies, which were not part of the survey, are less likely to use drug testing. But many analysts believe that this downward trend was primarily a reflection of the nation's tight labor market for skilled employees. They contend that use of drug testing policies will rise again when unemployment rates rise and businesses can afford to be more selective and deliberate in their hiring processes.


Supporters of workplace drug testing note that over the past several years, as drug testing has become more prevalent in American businesses, cases of workplace substance abuse have undergone a significant drop. Proponents of the practice argue that there is a clear correlation between these two trends. Business owners who use drug testing also point to cost-benefit analysis as a factor in their thinking; they note that the expense (typically $15 per test, with confirmatory tests costing approximately $60) of a testing policy, while potentially expensive over the long term, can be absorbed much more easily than the litigation costs that might stem from a single incident featuring a drug-impaired employee.

Moreover, some researchers and business owners claim that the introduction of drug testing in the work environment has actually improved the morale of the larger workforce, since the majority of employees are more interested in ensuring that their workplace is a safe and productive one. And of course, proponents of drug testing note that studies clearly show that companies are far more likely to enjoy financial health—which also benefits employees—if they are able to establish and maintain an environment in which substance abuse is not tolerated.

Nonetheless, detractors claim that the practice is not all that it is cracked up to be. "Despite the fact that the constitutional right to privacy does not apply to private-sector employees, many people feel strongly that drug testing is too 'invasive' and violates an important right," wrote George R. Gray and Darrel R. Brown in HR Focus. In addition, they charged that "testing current employees seems to promote a statement that employers do not trust their workers to behave responsibly regarding drug use." Gray and Brown did point out, however, that businesses can take steps to minimize this impression: "Careful education efforts about the need for testing can help prepare workers for a new program. A program directed toward sensitive positions or departments, tailored to a company's specific problems, and carefully designed to avoid communicating a feeling of mistrust among all employees appears to be the company's best approach in drug testing."

Another common criticism leveled against drug testing is that it does not spot more commonplace causes of workplace accidents and inefficiency, such as fatigue or alcohol use. Critics on this point argue that performance-based testing (also known as impairment testing or fitness for duty testing) is actually more valuable. Impairment testing measures whether workers are alert and fit for tackling their duties by tracking eye movement reactions to various stimuli. Evelyn Beck notes in Workforce that supporters of these types of testing argue "because impairment tests measure involuntary responses, cheating is less a concern than it is with urine tests, which unsupervised employees have been known to dilute or substitute."

Critics also argue that the findings of many drug-testing laboratories, which operate according to varying levels of regulation around the country, are simply not reliable. More detailed testing has proven effective in significantly reducing the number of errors made by testing laboratories, but observers note that additional testing is more expensive, and that this added cost could prove prohibitive to smaller companies in particular. Finally, even advocates of drug testing admit that companies who maintain worksites in more than one state face potential employment practice liability exposures, because privacy laws vary from state to state. As a result, employers in this situation often shape their practices differently from site to site, and in the process open themselves up to charges that they are not maintaining uniform employment practices.


Drug testing will continue to be employed on a widespread basis for the foreseeable future, as concerns over safety, productivity, and liability continue to trump privacy concerns in the minds of many business owners, executives, and managers. Moreover, many analysts predict that the practice will become even more pervasive in the next decade or so. By 2003, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is expected to implement new mandatory guidelines changing many aspects of regulated workplace drug testing. These changes will initially impact only the 20 percent of workplaces that mandate regulated testing, but observers predict that unregulated industries will quickly follow suit in most meaningful areas. The most important new provisions contained in these revised HHS guidelines will govern collection points and expanded specimen sample possibilities. In the former area, laboratories will be able to test at the point of collection with hand-held kits and automated equipment. In the latter realm, laboratories will be able to test using specimens other than urine. "Proposed additional specimens include oral fluids, sweat, and hair," wrote Kathy Hitchens in Medical Laboratory Observer. All of these specimens can be collected immediately and under direct observation, eliminating the possibility of employee contamination or substitution of the specimen.


Beck, Evelyn. "Is the Time Right for Impairment Testing?" Workforce. February 2001.

Cranford, Michael. "Drug Testing and the Right to Privacy: Arguing the Ethics of Workplace Drug Testing." Journal of Business Ethics. December 1998.

Fletcher, Lee. "Employer Drug Testing Has Pitfalls." Business Insurance. October 23, 2000.

Gray, George R., and Darrel R. Brown. "Issues in Drug Testing for the Private Sector." HR Focus. November 1992.

Hitchens, Kathy. "Workplace Drug Testing: How is it Changing?" Medical Laboratory Observer. February 2001.

Peters, Tom. "Why Workplace Drug tests Send Workers Bad Message." Washington Business Journal. October 21, 1994.

Solomon, Robert M., and Sydney J. Usprich. "Employment Drug Testing." Business Quarterly. Winter 1993.

"Substance Abuse in the Workplace." HR Focus. February 1997.

Taurone, Dominic. "What to Do When an Employee Tests Positive for Drugs." Employee Benefit News. October 1, 2000.

SEE ALSO: Employee Rights

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