Setting up employee drug screening requires awareness of compliance-related rules to conduct fairly and legally. Finding certified drug screening providers (required in some states), creating a drug testing policy and budgeting for drug screening costs are essential to building a strong screening program. While more than half of all businesses drug screen employees, only about 39% of small businesses with fewer than 99 employees do so.
These eight steps, including a free drug testing policy template, will help you implement employee drug screening.
Step 1: Review Drug Screening Laws in Your State
There are no federal compliance laws that cover substance abuse screening. Therefore, individual states and other regulatory agencies have stepped in to clarify what’s appropriate and what’s not. For example, states that require the employer to provide advanced notice (Alabama, Oklahoma, and Washington) or prohibiting random drug testing (Vermont, Rhode Island). The state laws should inform your understanding of legally hiring and managing your employees.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) provides an excellent state-by-state summary.
6 Common Requirements for Drug Screens
Here are the more common requirements for drug screening across states and industries. Consider these as best practice guidelines, even if you’re in a state or industry that doesn’t mandate every one of these. We’ve provided a sample drug test policy below.
Provide Advance Notice
Providing employees with advance notice of your drug test policy or publishing it in your employee handbook is a good practice and mandated in some states. For example, Florida requires employers to provide a 60-day advance notice of their drug screening policy before conducting any drug tests.
Provide Test Results
Providing employees with their test results is often done by the lab itself. However, if you’re in a state that requires you to provide results within 24 hours (South Carolina) or five days (Alaska), you’ll need to make sure this happens to avoid violating state law.
Allow Employees to Re-Test
Some states allow employees to dispute the findings. For example, in Washington state, you can’t terminate an employee based on the first test result. You’re required to re-test and confirm. The same is true in Nevada. However, in Maryland, if an employee wants to be re-tested, they’re required to pay for the second test themselves.
Protect Employee Privacy
Because drug test results are medical information, they’re protected in all states by the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), a federal law. Therefore, employee test results can’t be shared without prior authorization from the employee. You’ll need the employee to sign a form allowing the test results to be shared with you, the employer. The form, called a General Consent, is typically obtained at the drug screen lab. A sample of a general consent has been included here for reference.
Nonetheless, you need to be careful that information about drug test results isn’t shared inappropriately with individuals in your organization or others who have no right to know, such as the employee’s spouse, parents, or co-workers.
Many states require that drug screening be completed by a certified lab. Other states only require that a third party do the testing, whether certified or not. Some states don’t specify who does the drug testing. However, as a best practice, we recommend using a certified lab that’s not connected in any way with your business.
If you fire someone based on the test results, having the test results done by a certified independent lab may protect you as a defense in case of a wrongful termination lawsuit.
If you do any contracting for the federal government, you’re likely aware of the Drug Free Workplace Act. It has specific requirements for each of the items listed above, including requiring a written policy, training employees on creating a drug-free workplace, drug test notification, and penalties for non-compliance. It applies to any business doing work for the government.
Step 2: Find a Drug Screen Provider
Because drug screening is mandated in many industries, it’s easy to find a national provider like Quest Diagnostics or National Drug Screening to test your employees. There are also local options, like urgent care clinics or hospitals, that can assist you. Prices will vary according to the test provider, the drugs being tested for, and the testing method.
National Drug Screen Providers
There are several national players that provide drug screening for businesses, which we’ll list for you. In all cases, these are good providers to partner with, but some specialize in certain areas of drug testing over others. We have created this list of commonly used providers:
Some of these provide drug testing outside the United States as well. Just call the number on their website, or in some cases order the test online.
Local Drug Screen Providers
The easiest way to find a reliable local drug test company is to call businesses in your area that test their own employees and ask them who they use. Another way is to call the chamber of commerce in your community; they may have a more reliable recommendation than you’ll find on a website.
For example, some hospitals and urgent care centers provide drug testing services, but may not advertise that online. If you do search online consider using a keyword phrase like “drug testing services near me” or “employee drug screen in (town).” Then ask about their prices, including a package price if you send all your drug tests to them exclusively. Drug test pricing can vary significantly, and you might be able to negotiate a volume discount.
Step 3: Determine Your Drug Screen Costs
The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) advises that you can expect to pay between $10 and $30 for a single basic drug test. However, this can increase depending on the number of substances you test for, or the kind of test you use. Costs can decrease with volume discounts.
Some states, such as Florida, Ohio, and Kentucky also offer employer incentives for drug testing that can help reduce your drug screening costs.
Step 4: Document Your Drug Screen Policy
Once you’ve confirmed your state laws and found a certified facility, make your employees aware of being tested in advance. Consider adding a drug testing policy to your employee handbook and reviewing it upon hire. Or notify candidates when conducting interviews that you’ll drug test before hire.
Next, you may wish to notify employees of a positive drug test result and give them an opportunity to retake the test, perhaps in a different way. For example, let’s say the employee failed a saliva drug test—you could ask the lab to confirm the test using a urine sample before you take action such as employee discipline or employment termination.
Perhaps you don’t yet drug screen employees because you don’t have an HR professional on staff or know how to create a drug screening policy? We can help.
Free Substance Abuse & Drug Test Policy Templates
If you’re going to drug screen your employees, then we recommend you provide a substance abuse and drug testing policy so that expectations, responsibilities, and consequences are clearly understood. You may download a free sample substance abuse and drug testing policy, as well as a drug screen consent form, below.
(Source: Adapted from Docracy.com)
- Download Sample Drug Testing Policy as a .pdf or .doc file
- Download Sample Drug Screen Consent Form as a .pdf or .doc file
Disclaimer: Fit Small Business is a provider of business information, education, and resources, and not a law firm. Therefore, please have any policy documents reviewed by your business attorney familiar with applicable state and federal laws before publication and use.
Step 5: Determine When to Drug Screen
Again, some states mandate the conditions under which a drug test can be done. Here are the most common situations that may or may not be appropriate based on your business location:
Post-Offer and Pre-Employment
Drug testing within the workplace has shown to reduce absenteeism and improve worker productivity. It also tends to reduce workers comp claims. According to the SHRM, over 50% of all employers who do drug tests screen during the application process, pre-employment.
However, as mentioned above, be aware of state laws in all the states where you employ workers to be sure that pre-employment drug screens are allowed.
For instance, privacy laws in California mandate that pre-employment drug screening be consistent and uniform so that no employment discrimination occurs. That means you can’t just drug screen workers of a certain age or protected status; you would have to drug test all new hires doing a similar job in California.
Testing should be required after an incident, such as an accident that caused fatalities, injuries or expensive damage. Your policy should clearly state this right to test in all cases, but especially in the case of workplace accidents. Most Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) investigations will include questions about post-incident drug testing.
Another common reason that some employers drug test employees is because the employee is behaving in such a way that a manager suspects substance abuse. It’s called “reasonable suspicion” or “probable cause.” For example, if your sales rep gets in a car accident after a business meeting, could alcohol be to blame? Or if your best forklift operator suddenly crashed into a storage rack, might it be drug-related? In some states, reasonable suspicion is the only valid reason that drug testing is allowed after an employee is hired.
In some states, random drug testing is allowed in addition to drug testing for reasonable suspicion. Of course, random is random, meaning you can’t single out one person for drug testing based on a hunch. If you do, you’re likely to be in violation of anti-discrimination laws from the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) to the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) or other labor laws.
For example, to set up a random drug screening process, consider screening every third employee based on their hire month or their last name every quarter. That way you’ll cover all employees within a one-year timeframe.
Similar to a new hire, a few companies like to drug screen employees as part of a promotion process. They do this to ensure that the employee is drug-free before they give them more responsibility, such as access to a business bank account or direct supervision of staff.
The Department of Transportation (DOT), mandates drug testing for transportation-related jobs, such as airplane pilots, taxi drivers, and anyone with a commercial drivers’ license (CDL) as well as people who work in emergency response roles. If your business operates within any industry under the jurisdiction of the DOT, you’ll need to abide by their specific guidelines.
Step 6: Determining Your Drug Screenings Panels
There is a wide range of drugs and substances that can be screened for on a drug test. MobileHealth Management Services, which offers drug testing in the New York area, suggests that the five-panel urine drug screen is the most common, stating, “A five-panel drug test typically tests for commonly abused substances, including THC, opiates, PCP, cocaine, and amphetamines.”
Note though, that there are several different kinds of panels that are referred to in the same way. An example of this is four-panel tests. MobileHealth notes that one 4-panel test could screen for THC, opiates, cocaine, and PCP, while another 4-panel test may test for methadone, benzodiazepines, oxycodone, and Ecstasy. So be sure you understand what your paneled test is testing for. In many cases, you can ensure that one or two substances are tested if specificity is important to you.
MobileHealth offers examples of typical testing panels:
- 6-panel drug test: Typically tests for amphetamines/methamphetamines, barbiturates, cocaine metabolites, marijuana metabolites: Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), opiates (including hydrocodone, hydromorphone, codeine, and morphine) and Phencyclidine (PCP).
- 7-panel drug test: Often administered by companies or individuals concerned an employee might be abusing prescription drugs. Industries requiring alertness or the operation of heavy machinery, such as transportation and the DOT, may use the 7-panel test to gauge the presence of prescription drugs. These drugs, although legal, may impair a machine operator’s ability to do their job, or cause fatiguing side effects, particularly if abused.
- Standard 7-panel test: Typically looks for marijuana, cocaine, opiates, PCP, amphetamines, benzodiazepines and barbiturates.
- 10-panel test: Often administered to test employees in law enforcement and occupational medicine. Additionally, these 10-panel drug screens may examine if a person is violating the terms of probation. Many civil servants must pass a 10-panel test, particularly if their job entails dangerous work or the employee must ensure the safety of others.
- Standard 10-panel test: Typically looks for cocaine, marijuana, PCP, amphetamines, opiates, benzodiazepines, barbiturates, methadone, propoxyphene, and Quaaludes.
- 12-panel test: Often administered as an extension to the 10-panel test. The 12-panel test looks for either the presence of extended opiates and prescription painkillers or traces of other controlled substances if that poses a dangerous threat to the workplace.
- Standard 12-panel test: Looks for cocaine, marijuana, PCP, amphetamines, opiates, benzodiazepines, barbiturates, methadone, propoxyphene, quaaludes, Ecstasy/MDA, and oxycodone/Percocet.
There are several other types and levels of drug panels that test for many more substances, including:
- Marijuana metabolite
- Phencyclidine (PCP)
Screening for Marijuana in States Where Recreational Use Is Legal
Even in states where recreational use is legal, it remains illegal at the federal level. Employers may still choose to screen for it. However, it may be risky to terminate someone for their non-work recreational drug use in those states if the employee shows no impairment such as with alcohol or cigarettes, recreational drug use need not be tolerated on the job.
However, some employers are choosing to either omit the cannabis test or overlook the test results. This is partly because cannabis remains in a person’s system for up to 30 days. Also note that there are a number of cases when candidates or employees utilize marijuana for medical purposes, in which case medical documentation should be able support the claims. There is not a case, however, in which the employee may be under the influence while on the job or in the workplace.
Step 7: Order the Right Kind of Test for Your Drug Screen
Testing can vary from having an employee blow into a tube to having a worker submit a blood sample. Some drug screening tests, like urine, are easier to obtain. Other kinds of drug tests are more precise, able to detect drugs used within the past four hours. We’ll review five common drug screening tests that can be requested.
Quest, used by Karrion Lalor, suggests a urine test is the only Department of Transportation (DOT) approved testing method. CleanFleet, another drug testing agency focused on the transportation industry, confirms urine testing is the most common, because it shows recent drug use within one to five days of use. About 95% of all pre-employment drug tests are done by urine, at an average cost of about $40 per test.
As reliable as urine tests are, a urine test can’t detect drug use within the first four hours. So in some cases a saliva test may be a better screening method. Saliva testing is helpful if you need to know whether drugs have been used within the last 24 hours. It’s accurate, typically costs under $15 per worker, and admissible in most states that allow testing of body fluids. Although you can purchase these tests online and administer them yourself, doing so may be a violation in states that require a third-party testing facility or certified lab.
Alcohol Screen Using Breath
These tests monitor blood alcohol content (BAC) according to The Balance, and are another low cost option that can be administered directly by the employer in states that don’t require testing be done by a certified lab. Test kits can be bought online for as low as $7 for a blow tube to over $100 for an alcohol breath testing device.
Blood Toxicology Test
WebMD states that blood testing isn’t as reliable as urine testing for drug use, and it’s much more expensive, up to several hundred dollars per test. In addition, some individuals have a fear of needles. In general, blood testing for drug use is best saved for when the employee is unconscious, such as after a significant vehicle accident or workplace trauma.
Hair Follicle Test
According to Concentra, the benefit of using a hair sample is that it can test for drugs as far back as 90 days. However, it’s far more costly at over $100 per test. Although there are a lot of positives to hair follicle drug testing, it isn’t nearly as popular as urine drug testing, mostly due to their cost, difficulty in testing recent drug use, and it takes longer to process results.
Step 8: Avoid Drug Screening Risks
You’re in a tough spot as a business owner. If you drug test, but don’t do it right, you may have upset employees. If you don’t drug test employees, and someone gets hurt by an intoxicated employee, you’re liable as well. We’ll provide the risks of drug screening vs not drug screening so you can make the best decision for your situation.
Risks of Drug Screening Employees
The biggest risk of drug screening is that private health information may be shared in violation of Health Insurance Portability And Accountability Act (HIPAA), putting your business at risk for a lawsuit. Another risk is that you may terminate an employee based on a drug test, and subsequently find yourself in a wrongful termination lawsuit; if for instance, the employee wasn’t given a chance to retake the test as required in some states.
Risks of Screening for Recreational Drugs in States Where They’re Legal
However, to reduce your risk of a wrongful termination suit, be sure you have a drug policy and consistently apply it across all employees. Your policy will need to emphasize that employees may not use any federally-prohibited substances, like cannabis.
(Source: Quest Diagnostics.com)
Your best bet if your business is in one of the states where cannabis is legal, is to seek the advice of your attorney before finalizing and implementing your employee drug screening policy.
Risks of Not Drug Screening Employees
In some industries, you’ll cause more harm by not drug screening your employees. Four examples of when it may be risky for your business not to drug test employees are provided below.
As mentioned above, failing to abide by DOT requirements will expose you to liability if employees are found to be using prohibited substances on the job.
Employers whose staff work closely with children, the disabled, and older adults need to take extra care that their workers aren’t using drugs or alcohol on the job. Those employers will be held liable to protect the safety of the clients, such as children in a day care, or seniors in a recovery facility.
Not doing your due diligence may open your business up to liability. For example, if you’re in a service industry and your electrician shows up to the job intoxicated, this may put the customer and their home at risk. Because of this, the customer could sue you for damages. It’s best to prevent drug use by screening service workers and workers who typically come in contact with customers, especially in their home.
Increased Insurance Costs
Your workers’ compensation costs may go down as much as 47% if you have a policy of drug screening employees. Or your insurance company may give you a break on rates for business liability or employee life insurance. Reducing insurance risk while saving money is a good reason to drug screen employees.
The Bottom Line
As long as it’s legal in your state, drug screening is a great way to improve productivity and reduce costs due to bad hires, absent employees, or workers’ compensation claims. Of course, it’s mandated in certain industries and is regulated, in some cases, by the federal government (such as with the Department of Transportation and some federal law enforcement entities). We recommend that you execute the pre-employment drug test after the reference checking phase and as part of the job offer process. Just be sure you check your state rules on drug screening to make sure you do your drug testing by the book.
If you want to learn about the other methods that you can use to screen candidates, then read our article on ways to do applicant screening.