Performance testing may be better safety indicator

Drug testing may miss ability problems

Testing for substance abuse through traditional methods such as urinalysis or saliva analysis may be a given in many businesses and industries today, but it is not without its flaws. In fact, say some observers, there are much better methods available to help ensure safety and optimal performance.

"Drug tests are a remarkably bad idea, but they are required [in many industries]," says Raphael H. Warshaw of Workers’ Disease Detection Services (WDDS), a screening and consulting company based in Claremont, CA.

"Remember, drug testing is mandated in transportation and in several other areas," he continues. "But if you’re trying to prevent accidents — that’s where you need performance-based alternatives."

Performance-based testing, says Warshaw, can be divided into three major groups:

  • neurological testing;
  • fit-for-duty testing;
  • toxicology.

Traditional testing has limits

There are quite a few limitations to urinalysis and more traditional forms of drug screening that create the need for performance-based alternatives, says Warshaw. "Certainly, there’s the issue of what you are trying to accomplish," he notes. "If you’re trying to determine if someone is fit to do a particular task, then drug testing will not help too much. It merely gives you the level of a substance [in someone’s system]."

WDDS’ services grew out of work Warshaw conducted at the University of Southern California. "What we’ve done is develop tests on balance, vigilance [the ability to concentrate and react appropriately], and speed of reaction, all in one test," he says.

Warshaw has done a lot of this type of testing for construction firms. "Our system is simply a computerized device with a specially constructed keypad that reports the difference between normal and abnormal readings," he explains. "The big contribution we’ve made isn’t in the test itself, but we have developed reference values in a number of different occupations. For example, if you are an employer at a nuclear plant, you want to know your employee is watching his console. Also, in the amusement industry, if you have a ride operator watching a roller coaster, you want to be sure that individual is actually paying attention."

Warshaw recalls a study he conducted with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s SWAT team. "We took a group and put them in a hotel. Then, we took an equal number in a separate group and dosed them selectively with alcohol," he reports. "A small number of the participants failed on the tests with a blood alcohol level of zero. Then, we dosed them all the way to a 0.1 level of alcohol, and about half passed the test. OK, it’s time to go home — whom do you ride with? The one who passed the test or the one with an alcohol level of zero?"

The message here is that as an employer, in many cases you want to find out if someone at a particular time can do a particular thing; and drug testing, says Warshaw, just will not do that.

No system is perfect

WDDS is just one of many organizations working with performance-based alternatives, says Warshaw. "There are very sophisticated devices developed through the military — eye tracking, for example, to evaluate very subtle changes," he notes. This can be used by sports organizations to evaluate, for example, individuals who want to be race drivers, he adds.

"Some electrophysiological systems look at the actual performance of the nerves; visual testing is being looked at and used, as well as some simulators." In the area of toxicology, researchers at UCLA are "making superb use of technology," Warshaw says.

As impressive as they appear to be, performance-based alternatives also have their limitations, Warshaw admits.

One of the negatives is that in order for these methods to be effective you have to use them frequently, he notes. "You can do it once a year, but you’ll be giving away a large benefit. That will tell you the baseline, but what’s more important is whether there has been any change."

For example, if you have a driver who is tested once a year and passes, you might assume he is fine. But if you test him more often, on the occasions he flunks you can refuse to send him out. "In order to get the maximum benefit, optimal testing would be done before every dispatch," says Warshaw.

Of course, he concedes, that can get expensive, depending on what you are using. "Our system is pretty inexpensive — less than $3,000," he says. If you use the system for recruitment and training, it will likely pay for itself, Warshaw says. It beats having no performance testing. "If you put someone to work who will fail out," he says, "you’ve made a bad investment."

The bottom line, says Warshaw, is that there is no one method at present that serves all employers’ needs to ensure optimal employee health and performance. "Someone who really wanted to do a good job would use a combination of methods," he concludes.

[For more information, contact:

Raphael H. Warshaw, Workers’ Disease Detection Services, Claremont, CA. Telephone: (909) 579-0289. Web: www.wdds.com.]