May, 1998.

Our local University library just received a copy of  Arborist Equipment, a great book for tree riggers. The book costs $100 (the non ISA price) so I decided to get a peek before plunking down a C-note on it. The author is a practicing arborist with several years of experience in tree care, and is no doubt an authority on arborist equipment and tools. And he has succeeded in making a dry, technical topic lively and readable. But it is some of his barroom brawling, beer-guzzling humor that reveals a glaring hypocrisy in the book. On page 23, under the subtitle “The Troubling Facts about Substance Abuse” is a list of “statistics” on substance abuse that could easily been taken straight out of a sales brochure of a major drug testing company. I wish the author had taken the time to take a closer look at mandatory employee drug testing before endorsing it, especially in light of his romanticizing of alcohol throughout his book. To those emplyees who cherish their constitutional rights, and those employers who genuinely wish to reduce workplace accidents, it is my firm conviction that the use of urinalysis tests is not the solution.

Scientific studies show that employee drug testing simply does nothing to reduce workplace accidents and absenteeism. The champions of forced drug testing—disillusioned policy makers and investors in urinalysis technology—rely on their own interpretations of a few methodologically flawed studies. They either fail to look at the larger, better-designed studies, or they simply misinterprete them. By far, the largest study on employee drug testing, one which included a sample of 4,396 postal workers nationwide, showed no relationship at all between drug test results and workplace injuries or accidents.1 Another large study, the Georgia Power Company study, actually showed a higher promotion rate and a lower rate of absenteeism among positive testers than the average for the general workforce populace. The only study published in a peer-reviewed journal, the Journal of General Internal Medicine, showed “no difference between drug-positive and drug-negative employees” at the end of one year.2

Since the beginning of workplace drug testing, the Bureau of Labor Statistics has reported an increase in job-related sickness and injuries to 6.8 million in 1990, the highest rate since 1979, before the proliferation of drug testing programs.1 It seems the launching of the drug testing campaign in America's workplace has been based on anti-drug hysteria and a motive for profit, and not on a careful analysis of the relationship between illicit drug use and workplace safety and productivity.

A major flaw in the use of drug detecting tests such as urinalysis is they cannot show whether an individual who has tested positive was actually impaired while at the workplace. Rather, they detect the presence of non-psychoactive drug metabolites, which may linger in one's system for days, or even weeks. This is in marked contrast to the breathalyzer and blood tests for alcohol, which detect impairment only at the time of the test. Of concern is the urinalysis test's particular sensitivity to marijuana. Nobody wants an arborist on the job who is high on pot. But there are 20 to 30 million marijuana users in this country, the majority of whom confine their use of the drug outside of the work place.2 It is much more likely that the lingering metabolites of marijuana will be detected in one's system than metabolites of harder drugs such as heroine or cocaine, which wash out of the system in two or three days. This begs the question: Does urinalysis encourage individuals to substitute hard drugs and alcohol for pot?

As a former truck driver and part-time arborist who has discussed this problem with many of my coworkers, I believe the answer — is yes. It is obvious that the risk of testing positive for amphetamines and cocaine is low compared with marijuana. A pair of studies have suggested that the recent decline in marijuana use has led to an increase in drug-abuse emergencies and auto fatalities owing to alcohol and other drugs.3 The irony is that urinalysis tests indict many competent and productive workers who choose to use non-traditional drugs in their free time, while it essentially ignores users of hard drugs, and the majority of drug abusers: alcoholics. I commonly hear from coworkers: “Drug testing has destroyed my attitude towards my job and my government. They treat me like a drug addict and they go home and get drunk every night.” (Interestingly, at the lab where I once submitted to a urinalysis test as a truck driver the local Budweiser brewery required prospective employees to submit to a hair analysis for pre-employment screening. Note that the world's number one purveyor of the country's most abused drug — alcohol — has zero tolerance for drugs other than alcohol, even if users of those drugs have long since given them up.)

Another concern about drug testing is the accuracy of the equipment used to perform the test. No matter how sophisticated the technology, there will always be built-in human and experimental error. This will result in a certain number of “false positives.” Let's take a hypothetical situation where it is assumed that 5% of the population are drug users, and the test is 95% accurate. Of the testers who test positive for drug use, half of those positives will be false positives, the other half true positives.4 These figures may seem counterintuitive, but they are statistically correct. Even if the test is 99.99% accurate, hundreds of Americans will still be falsely branded as “drug users.”

Illegal drugs are the reason we have a new chemical McCarthyism in the American workplace. The surge of intrusive drug detection programs in the workplace during the 1990s is a clear violation of our Fourth Amendment protection from illegal search without probable cause, a practice which conservative Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia calls a “needless indignity.” Advocates of employee drug testing, in a misguided attempt to curb workplace accident rates and boost productivity, have foisted on the American worker a fascist system which trounces individual liberties, and does nothing to remedy the real problems associated with the workplace. Based on pseudoscience rather than fact, urinalysis testing will only further alienate the worker from the workplace. As a clearly flawed technology, mandatory drug testing ought to eventually go the way of the similarly flawed polygraph test. Better, it should be banned outright until a more efficacious technology is found to reduce workplace accidents and absenteism.

An alternative to urinalysis testing is already known: the use of performance tests, which measure reaction time, alertness, and agility. These tests measure actual impairment on the job, so they ignore private behavior irrelevant to job performance. It's time to move away from draconian urine testing technologies and toward performance testing. It's time to move into the Twenty-first Century.

Steve Daniels


1  "Test Negative." Scientific American, March, 1990, p.18.
2  "Urinalysis or Uromancy?" Dale H. Geieringer, Ph.D., California NORML.
3  Peter Passell, "Less Marijuana, More Alcohol?', New York Times, June 17, 1992.
4  Marylin vos Savant column, Parade Magazine, March 28, 1993.
5  "Hairy Problems for New Drug Testing Method." Science, Sept., 1990, p.1099.

North Country