Impairment Testing: Alternative for Workplace Drug Testing
Impairment tests make use of various technologies and procedures to detect impaired functioning. It can include cognitive tests, physical assessments, and psychological evaluations.
Drug testing has been a standard operating procedure in organizations, especially those that operate in industries where safety is of critical concern, like in construction, transportation, security, and manufacturing. Companies also typically require candidates to undergo drug screenings as part of the job application process.
In the past, employers had the impression that drug tests were effective in promoting safety and improving productivity in the workplace. In recent years, however, many people have started to acknowledge the limitations and even disadvantages of workplace drug testing. Furthermore, widespread legalization of cannabis has put legislators and employers in quite a conundrum in which they must try to balance the privacy and medical needs of employees while also keeping the workplace safe and functional.
In the midst of these significant shifts in culture and legislation, impairment testing has emerged as a possible alternative to drug screenings. To understand what this procedure is, here is a brief history of how drug tests gained widespread use and how impairment testing is considered its alternative.
How Drug Testing in the Workplace Started
Workplace drug testing started to become a standard practice in 1986 when then-president Ronald Reagan made it mandatory for federal employees. Soon, other businesses in the private sector followed suit, and the procedure steadily gained momentum over the next decade especially when the drug war of the 1990s began to unfold.
In 1987, the American Management Association polled companies to see how many of them implemented drug testing for employees. At that time only 21 percent said they required employees to undergo drug screening, but in 1996, that figure dramatically rose to 81 percent. In the 2000s, though, the use of drug testing in organizations started to decline.
The Limitations of Drug Tests in the Workplace
Drug testing can detect evidence of recent consumption of certain substances, like alcohol, prescription medication, and illicit drugs. However, these screenings do not assess impairment or demonstrate a link between the detected substances and the worker’s performance.
Furthermore, not all drug tests are created equal. If employers want accurate results, they need to opt for more than just a simple urine drug test, but comprehensive drug screenings can be quite expensive. With the costs and resources involved in drug testing, it is important for managers to assess whether it is indeed effective in promoting security and productivity in the workplace.
In the 1990s, the president of the National Workrights Institute, Lewis Maltby, presented a report in which he discussed why drug testing is ineffective and “a waste of money.” Another study published by the National Academy of Sciences revealed that moderate consumption of cannabis while off duty was no more predictive of poor work performance than alcohol consumption is.
Despite their limitations, drug tests continue to be practiced in the workplace for a number of reasons. One would be that employers generally see this type of test as a way to protect a worker’s health because it discourages the use of illicit substances. Second, many employers are content to use drug screenings as an additional way to prevent industrial accidents and lower injury rates.
Impairment Testing and its Benefits
Impairment testing is a procedure that directly assesses a worker’s current health and fitness for duty and whether these can put themselves and others at risk. Compared to drug tests, this type of screening is more complex and comprehensive because it can show a direct link to job performance.
Impairment tests make use of various technologies and procedures to detect impaired functioning. It can include cognitive tests, physical assessments, and psychological evaluations. This has many possible applications on the safety and productivity of an organization.
Here are some of the benefits of impairment testing as an alternative to drug testing in the workplace.
- More accurate and instantaneous feedback. Drug tests focus solely on detecting drugs and alcohol in a person’s system, but the presence of these illicit substances do not necessarily indicate a job-related impairment. Second, medications and even foods could trigger false positives in drug screening, so employers may need to invest in costlier tests to get the results they need. In addition, employees may resort to quick detox programs and manufactured fake urine to pass a drug test and secure their jobs.
Last but not the least, there are obvious ways to bypass a drug test; employees or job candidates can simply abstain from illicit substances before taking a drug test or use detox products to cleanse their system. Impairment testing, on the other hand, gives instantaneous feedback on whether a worker is mentally and physically fit enough to carry out their responsibilities.
- More proactive. A drug test is reactive, and a failed screening only hints at a past consumption or illness, not necessarily a current one. This type of test cannot accurately predict whether an employee is prone to commit errors or cause delays at work.
Impairment tests are more proactive in that they give employers specific data that they can use to create more effective safety measures. For example, impairment exams can identify which time of the day an employee shows signs of mental fatigue. From this information, managers can adjust their work schedule so the said employee does not handle any tasks that require intense focus during that time.
- More comprehensive in scope. Mind-altering substances such as drugs and alcohol are not the only factors that can affect an employee’s productivity and health. Stress, fatigue, interpersonal conflict, and many others can be detrimental to a worker’s capability to focus and be productive.
Unfortunately, there is no way for drug tests to detect these other factors. Impairment testing, though, is more comprehensive as it takes into consideration more than just illicit substances. This type of test can, therefore, help managers address the root cause of an employee’s inability to work.
- More respectful of privacy. Compared to drug tests, impairment tests are more respectful of an employee’s right to privacy because they are limited to examining job-related impairment. Controversy has surrounded drug testing because of its invasive nature. Certain state laws are designed to protect an employee’s right to privacy, and workers can cite these when they feel that their privacy is violated.
When employers insist on enforcing drug tests, their subordinates may feel resentful and experience low employee morale. Furthermore, all these can negatively impact open communication in the organization.
About the author
Devin Yirka is the Production Assistant at Testclear, a drug testing advisor and online seller of home drug testing kits. He occasionally writes for Testclear about drug testing and other related topics.