Detecting Drug Use in the Workplace: Then and Now

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Today, drug-free workplace initiatives and drug testing programs are commonplace, but are these programs outdated and stuck in the past?

Workplace drug testing began in the 1980s and has been evolving ever since. But many employers haven’t kept up with the changes and have not evolved their programs to address today’s drug screening challenges.

Let’s take a look at drug testing then and now.

The 1980’s

There were two events in the 1980s that served as the impetus for workplace drug testing: a plane crash on the USS Nimitz where drug use was found to be a contributing factor and the Maryland Conrail train accident.

In the train accident, a Conrail train crashed into an Amtrak passenger train, killing 14 passengers and two Amtrak employees.

The National Transportation Safety Board found that both the Conrail engineer and train operator had been smoking marijuana and cited drug use as the probable cause of the accident.

The 1990’s

In response, Congress passed the 1991 Omnibus Transportation Act, which required mandatory drug testing for all federally regulated employers, including all individuals regulated by the DOT who operate large equipment, as they put public safety at risk if intoxicated.

This Act designated urine as the specimen of choice for drug testing and breath for alcohol testing.

These incidents and the resulting legislative policies helped set the stage for modern employment drug testing processes, drug-free workplace programs, and drug screening best practices.

Drug Testing Specimens

In the 1990s, urine was the most commonly used specimen.

Over the years, however, individuals discovered new ways to subvert it, undermining its reliability.

Oral fluid and hair testing are emerging as new options. Oral fluid testing offers the benefit of being difficult to subvert, but it has a small detection window, so it’s ideal for discovering recent drug use.

Hair testing is also accurate and hard to subvert and it offers a long detection window of up to 90 days, so it can identify longer-term drug use.

Technology and Automation

Another important area that has evolved over the years is technology and automation.

Twenty years ago, the drug testing process was manual and paper-based.

It was a slow, multi-step process that required faxing, and in some cases, even postal mail, and was very labor intensive.

Today’s new technologies offer automated solutions that can be integrated with the employer’s talent management software.

They improve efficiency and workflow, reduce process steps, and make ordering drug tests faster, easier, more consistent and more compliant.

Department of Transportation (DOT)

A major technology shift also occurred very recently when the DOT approved the use of electronic chain of custody (eCOC) forms for DOT-regulated workers.

eCOC forms eliminate the errors and legibility issues and the paper storage and inventory requirements associated with paper drug testing form management.

The automated process allows employers to more easily and quickly view the status of an individual’s drug test, improving efficiency and reducing turnaround time, enabling faster time-to-hire and easier compliance.

Medical Review Officers (MRO)

Another important change that’s emerged over the last several years is the role of the medical review officer (MRO).

An MRO serves as an independent gatekeeper who reviews testing results to ensure its accuracy and integrity and to provide a quality assurance review.

An MRO must be a licensed physician within any state, have clinical experience in controlled substance abuse disorders and be knowledgeable about issues relating to adulteration and substitution of medical samples.

Having an MRO review results has become a critical new best practice.

Over the last two decades, the drug testing industry has evolved and employers need to understand these new developments, so they’re not basing their 21st century workplace drug screening program on 20th century practices.

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Dr. Todd Simo

Dr. Simo is the Chief Medical Officer and the Managing Director of Transportation at HireRight. He served as HireRight’s Medical Director starting in 2009 and was promoted to Chief Medical Officer in 2015. Dr. Simo was also appointed to the role of Managing Director of Transportation in 2018. Dr. Simo came to HireRight with a decade of experience in the medical consulting arena. Before that he was Medical Director at an occupational health clinic in Virginia and owned a consulting firm providing medical director services to employers across the United States.

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