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Impairment Tests: An Alternative to Drug-Testing in the Workplace

Date: February 22 2001

Drug testing is on the rise in both the U

Impairment Tests: An Alternative to Drug-Testing in the Workplace

Drug-testing in the workplace is on the rise in North America.   The data indicate that testing for substance abuse in the workplace is even more widespread in the US than it is in Canada.

Despite the increase in use of drug-tests, there are legal and practical problems with implementing them in the workplace.   In this paper, we point out these problems, and we suggest an alternative --- impairment-tests.   Finally, we offer guidelines that will minimize negative reactions toward testing for substance abuse.

There are at least two major reasons for implementing drug-testing policies in the workplace.   First, proponents of these policies argue that drug-testing protects the health and safety of both workers and the general public. Industrial accident and injury rates have decreased because of advances in designing safe work-equipment, improved work-processes, as well as valid selection tests and training programs that increase an employer´s knowledge and skill.   Implementing drug-testing programs is seen as an additional avenue to further reduce industrial accident and injury rates.

A second rationale for implementing drug-testing policies is production-based.   In many industries, due to re-engineering processes and advances in technology, employees are now required to complete highly complex tasks, as well as tasks that include additional responsibilities.   Examples include the oil (e.g., drilling rig supervisors) and transportation (e.g., truck-drivers) industries. The mistakes of a single individual can have a significant negative effect on an organization''s bottom-line.

There are at least six reasons why drug-testing in the workplace continues to be a controversial practice.   First, a drug-test only measures the use of, or exposure to, a particular drug.   Whether the person is impaired in his or her job performance, however, is a different matter.   For example, finding a trace-amount of a particular drug in a person''s urine does not mean that he or she is unproductive on the job, or about to engage in a serious work-related crime.   The use of the drug could have occurred 2 - 3 weeks prior to conducting the test.   Hence, any negative effects of drug use on job performance will have worn off by the time the person is subjected to the test.

Second, despite conventional belief, empirical evidence that drug-testing policies have the desired effect on performance measures such as absenteeism, tardiness, work performance, and on-the-job accident rates is inconclusive.   Canadian courts have, on several occasions, ruled against the use of drug-tests as a management tool because the focal organization could not demonstrate a connection between testing for drugs and performance measures in the workplace (i.e., the test is not job-relevant).   Thus, even though evidence of the usefulness of drug-testing policies for enhancing organizational effectiveness is lacking, the practice prevails for socio-political and symbolic reasons rather than practical ones.

Third, extensive procedures must be implemented to ensure that drug-tests provide accurate results.   Accurate tests are expensive.   Many companies either cannot afford or are unwilling to spend the money for these expensive tests.   It is not ethical to use cheaper but less than accurate tests.

Fourth, if not managed in a proper fashion, the implementation of drug-testing policies can lead to a host of negative outcomes including an increase in grievance rates, deteriorating labor - management relations, and difficulties in attracting and hiring qualified candidates.

Fifth, drug-tests are arguably invasive, and intrude on employees´ right to privacy.   Employers may rightfully discipline employees if the latter´s performance is compromised by substance abuse.   However, it is questionable whether the employer needs to know the root of the impeded performance.

Sixth, urine tests, the most common method to test for drug abuse, only screens for a small number of drugs.   For example, these tests do not detect the growing number of designer drugs and medications (e.g., allergies) that can adversely affect performance.   In short, the usefulness of drug tests as a legal, practical, and effective management tool is arguable.

What is an adequate alternative to drug-testing procedures given the above limitations?   We believe that impairment-tests are better suited than drug-tests to recognize the substandard work that should concern managers before it occurs.   Impairment-tests screen employees at the beginning of their work shift to identify those times, for whatever reason, they are less alert or fit than normal to perform their job.   Through impairment tests, employees can be tested for signs of current impairment that indicate they are more likely to make serious work-related errors.

Testing for impairment is directly related to job performance, and thus the practice is more likely to withstand the scrutiny of the courts. An example of an impairment test is Factor 1000.   Factor 1000, a commercially available test, is a version of the critical tracking test, which measures hand - eye motor skills. This simulated exercise requires the test-taker to control the random movements of a cursor between two markers on a computer screen.   The cursor moves faster over trials, and, in the end, the test-taker can no longer control it.   Scoring depends on how far the cursor veers from the center each time, how long the test-taker takes to regain control of the cursor each time, and how long the cursor is centered.   A computer algorithm computes the score, and alerts the test administrators if the test-taker is under-performing.     Research has shown that the test is valid and reliable.

The issue of illegal substances and its relationship to performance is an important one.   It is critical to note that the use of legal substances can cause work-related problems as well.   Drug tests are not intended to measure to what extent legal substances are used.   For example, studies have found that anti-histamines are related to workplace accidents since these medications can lead to drowsiness and inattention.   Impairment tests measure the effect of both legal and illegal substances on performance-related variables.   A strong argument can be made that organizations should be more interested in impairment-tests than drug-tests as the former cover a greater domain of potential causes of poor performance than the latter.

Impairment-tests do not infringe on an individual´s right to privacy to the extent that drug-tests do.   An impairment-test is sensitive to job-related impairments.   But, unlike a drug-test, an impairment-test does not point to specific actions outside the workplace that account for impaired performance.   Thus, it would appear that organizations that implement impairment-testing policies care more about their employees'' readiness to perform rather than the actual cause of impairment.

Implementing policies to detect drug-abuse or impairment in the workplace is a divisive issue.   Although the introduction of such policies has the potential to engender perceptions of unfairness, research on organizational justice suggests that organizations can take steps to minimize negative outcomes.   For example, providing individuals with voice and a formal appeals procedure have been shown to predict perceptions of drug-testing fairness, work-related attitudes and intentions (e.g., job satisfaction, trust in management, and turnover intentions), and job performance.   Research has also shown that individuals perceive testing procedures to be fair when logical and sincere justifications for implementing the policies were provided.   For example, a CEO who states that drug-testing policies are being implemented for business reasons, and fails to show any understanding for the concerns of employees, will have a hard time gaining employee support for them.

In summary, impairment-tests are a feasible alternative to drug-tests.   Impairment-tests are practical, related to actual impairment, and less likely than drug-tests to invade one´s privacy.   Organizations can take steps to mitigate negative reactions to testing for substance abuse or performance impairment, and encourage positive labor - management relations, by implementing procedures that are perceived by employees as procedurally fair.

For further reading on this subject, consult:

Konovsky, M.A. and Cropanzano, R. (1993).   Justice considerations in employee drug testing.   In R. Cropanzano (Ed.), Justice in the workplace: Approaching fairness in human resource management (pp. 171-192).   Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Macdonald, S. (1995).   The role of drugs in workplace injuries: Is drug testing appropriate?   Journal of Drug Issues, 25, 703-722.

Macdonald, S. and Wells, S. (1994).   The impact and effectiveness of drug testing programs in the workplace.   In S. Macdonald and P.M. Roman (Eds.), Research Advances in Alcohol and Drug Problems, 2, 121-142.


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