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Drug-free workplaces: In name only?

May 1, 2008
by Gary A. Enos, Editor
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Local businesses could prove to be a fruitful partner for some addiction counselors and employee assistance professionals seeking potential new client bases, but first the local companies must maintain a commitment to a drug-free workplace and to those employees who need substance use services. Orange County, Florida leaders last year decided to take a closer look at how employers in their community were addressing substance use issues in the workplace, and the results ended up casting some doubt on companies' ability to maintain effective policies.

The Orange County Coalition for a Drug-Free Community last year teamed with the University of Central Florida's School of Social Work to determine the degree to which local employers had implemented drug-free workplace policies, including strong drug testing efforts, and the extent to which they believed such policies benefited companies in general. Bill Brooks, who co-chairs the coalition's business committee, summarizes the survey results by saying, “We felt people's perceptions of the programs were really high, but their own practices were really low for the most part.”

A crucial question in the survey of Orange County businesses involved whether a company simply called itself a “drug-free workplace” or actually adhered to the standards characterizing employers that are formally certified as drug-free workplaces in the state. According to Brooks, Florida was the first state in the country to offer employers a percentage discount on their workers' compensation premiums if they become certified drug-free workplaces, a designation that requires them at a minimum to conduct pre-employment, post-accident, and “reasonable suspicion” drug testing of employees.

The survey, in which over 1,000 employers in the county participated by telephone or mail, found that while more than half of respondents said their company had a drug-free workplace policy, only 22.3% had a state-certified policy. Also, almost as many employers (21.3%) had no drug-free workplace policy at all.

What concerns Brooks and other anti-drug leaders in the community is that the policies of the non-certified workplaces could range from the strong to the never enforced. “A lot of people offer the one-liner that drugs in their workplace will not be tolerated, but these same employers seem to zone out on several issues where they might face liability,” he says.

Moreover, in tight economic times where small companies in particular are just trying to survive the instability, Brooks says drug-free workplace policies might be among the first areas to be affected by cutbacks. Even state-certified drug-free workplaces that will take care to maintain their pre-employment and post-incident testing in tough economic times might choose to cut back in areas where they have more flexibility, such as with random drug testing, Brooks says.

Are policies valuable?

The Orange County survey showed relative consistency on the question of whether maintaining a drug-free workplace benefits company operations. Among all respondents, including those in companies without drug-free workplace policies, 71.4% said drug-free workplaces have a highly positive effect on productivity, with 80% saying they have a highly positive effect on safety.

Respondents in companies that have a drug-free workplace policy said their organization is not always particularly vocal about such policies. Only 43.8% of these respondents said their company specifies its drug-free workplace status in recruitment advertising.

Companies also showed wide differences in how they respond when a tested employee submits a positive screen. Slightly more than half of respondents in companies with drug-free workplace policies said their companies terminate the employment of workers who test positive for illicit drugs. Just under one-third said their companies refer employees testing positive for professional assistance, with about the same percentage saying their company has an EAP. The survey did not analyze responses by industry group, Brooks says.

Treatment professionals' role

Brooks says last year's survey release did not appear to generate a great deal of movement in the local business community. He believes smaller businesses have had less opportunity than larger companies to link with professionals who can help them build effective drug prevention policies that include testing, and he sees an opportunity for treatment professionals to work more closely with small employers.

“Not enough professionals are doing fee-for-service arrangements with small employers,” Brooks says. “Maybe the providers don't want that type of business. But ultimately I think they're missing a big portion of the marketplace.”

Brooks and Carol Burkett, director of the Orange County Coalition, were scheduled to give a joint presentation of the survey results at this year's annual conference of the Drug and Alcohol Testing Industry Association (DATIA). Brooks says his organization continues to spread the word about the survey and the business community's potential impact on a societal problem that accounts for about 85% of the violent crime in his county.

“We want to ask, ‘Can we have an impact on law enforcement and reduce violent crime by looking at drug-free workplaces?’ since the surveys show that the vast majority of drug users are employed,” Brooks says.