How Does Drug Testing Enhance Workplace Health and Safety?

December 21 2022
5 min read

Many employers rely on pre-employment drug testing as part of their hiring process. Many organizations, especially those in safety-sensitive industries like healthcare and transportation, also use post-hire drug screenings (periodic, random, and/or post-accident).

Drug testing can enhance workplace health and safety, by reducing drugs and alcohol in the workplace and their adverse impact on the health and safety of employees. For example, a study in October 2014 in the journal Safety Science found that alcohol and drug testing significantly decreased the risk of occupational accidents in the transportation industry.

In the sections that follow, we’ll take a closer look at the evidence that supports drug testing, starting with the reality of drugs and alcohol in the workplace and what proportion of employees have substance abuse issues. From there, we’ll explore the various ways that drug testing can improve the safety of employees and the workplace.

What Proportion of Workers Have Substance Abuse Issues

16 percent of employees have a substance abuse problem, the National Safety Council has reported. Substance abuse also affects every industry, according to the NSC. Its report, “Substance Use by Occupation,” found rates of drug and alcohol abuse are higher in the construction (19 percent), service (15.6 percent), and transportation (13.9 percent) industries.

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How Many Are Under the Influence of Drugs or Alcohol at Work?

In 2006, the University of Buffalo’s Research Institute on Addictions found that 15 percent of the workforce were showing up to work under the influence of alcohol. Since that time, we’ve seen seismic changes in how and where we work. Most notably, the number of people who work from home has tripled, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Reflecting those changes, today’s surveys ask questions like “Have you used alcohol, marijuana, or other recreational drugs on work video calls?” When asked that question in a survey in 2021, 22 percent of the respondents answered “yes.”


How Testing Reduces Adverse Impact of Drugs and Alcohol in the Workplace

Drugs and alcohol in the workplace can harm the health and safety of employees, clients, and, depending on the circumstances, the public at large. Drug testing can prevent or at least reduce this adverse impact in the following ways:

  • Drug testing is a deterrent from drug and alcohol abuse – The same study in Safety Science cited above found that drug testing had a “deterrent” effect, not just for white-collar workers (for whom deterrence was strongest) but across jobs and professions.

Other studies have corroborated these results, concluding that drug testing decreases the likelihood of worker drug use. What are the positive implications for health and safety in the workplace? The next sections will explore these health and safety benefits in greater detail.

More Health and Safety Workplace Benefits of Drug Testing

  • Drug testing decreases on-the-job injuries and accidents – By deterring employees from coming to work while under the influence, drug testing can significantly reduce workplace injuries and accidents.

Substance abuse in the workplace causes 65 percent of on-the-job accidents, the U.S. Department of Labor said. It estimated that, as another gauge of on-the-job injuries and accidents, 38-50 percent of all workers’ compensation claims are related to drug or alcohol abuse in the workplace.

Drug testing, on the other hand, correlates with a decrease in workers’ compensation claims. A survey of HR professionals in 2011 noted that companies with high rates of workers’ compensation incidents saw a drop from 14 to six percent after implementing drug testing programs.

These considerations are of course critical in safety-sensitive industries like construction, trucking, and transportation, where employers cannot afford to not test employees for drugs and alcohol.

  • Drug testing can improve employee health, so that employees do not come to work sick and spread infection (or at least not as often). Substance use disorders, whether alcoholism or other drugs, compromise the immune system. Take an alcohol problem, for example. It can lead to any number of serious health issues and sick days from work.

Heavy alcohol consumption also impairs the body’s ability to fight infections like the flu and recover quickly. (In fact, heavy alcohol consumption is a risk factor for COVID.) An employee with an alcohol problem could therefore be sick more often and for longer periods than other employees. If that employee is also among the 90 percent of Americans who, according to a survey in 2019, have come to work with a cold or flu, they may be causing other employees to get sick, too.

  • Drug testing can help prevent overdose fatalities at work – It may come as a grim surprise: Unintentional overdose deaths from non-medical use of drugs have been increasing in the workplace since 2011, when this data first began to be collected. These workplace overdoses have involved stimulants such as methamphetamine and narcotics like fentanyl.

No employer wants to expose themselves or their employees to a drug as dangerous and lethal as fentanyl. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration has called it “the single deadliest drug threat our nation has ever encountered,” adding that it is “everywhere.”

Then there is the occupational trauma of witnessing a death from overdose or a colleague after they have died. Sometimes, too, trauma can occur via secondary exposure, such as hearing another employee share their experience of witnessing the overdose. Exposure to trauma in the workplace increases the likelihood of PTSD and other sometimes serious mental and physical health issues (that can in turn negatively impact workplace health and safety).

The prospect of an overdose fatality at your place of work, though more likely today than in 2011, is still statistically quite rare. (As perspective, of the 4,786 fatal work injury deaths in 2020, 388 of them were from unintentional overdose on non-medical drugs like opioids, according to the Centers for Disease Control’s National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.) Rarity aside, when overdose rates continue to soar above record levels in a national drug epidemic, it would also be presumptuous to rule out the possibility of a fatal overdose occurring in one’s place of work.

Drug testing promotes workplace safety, by reducing theft and liability and HR issues. When carried over into the workplace, substance addiction can create a host of problems for employers, including theft, conflicts with coworkers, and liability issues. Workplace safety, understood more broadly, is not just about decreasing on-the-job injuries and fatalities— it is also about protecting the mental and emotional security of your employees. The most productive employees feel safe at work.

Interested in knowing more about how pre-employment and/or other drug testing might help you? Contact us for a free consultation.


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