Drug-testing policy workshops boost business, help clients avoid problems

Many employers hesitate because they worry about legal problems

Testing employees for drug and alcohol use is popular with many employers, and many others would start testing if they could get past the many questions regarding legal issues and other concerns. One occupational health provider is reporting success with free workshops in which employers learn how to write a drug-testing policy and institute a proper program in their workplaces.

The workshops are not difficult to produce, and the provider benefits because the employers usually seek testing services through the occupational health program after the workshops.

Employers welcome the workshops because they are aware of the many legal concerns with workplace testing and don’t feel comfortable jumping into a testing program on their own, says Mary Ann Gaster, RN, BSN, COHN-S, director of occupational health services at FirstHealth of the Carolinas in Pinehurst, NC. Her occupational health program has been offering occasional workshops since August 1998.

"We believe strongly that companies shouldn’t just do drug testing without talking through the options," she says. "The workshops let them think through the process and decide what they want to do as a company. They get to ask a lot of questions and hear about issues they may not have even considered before." (See story, p. 14, for more on requiring employers to have a drug policy.)

Gaster’s program stipulates that companies have a drug-testing policy in place before it will provide drug-testing services, so the workshop is a way to help employers formulate that policy without necessarily doing it for them. The workshops are now scheduled quarterly, and the program invites all the employers who have expressed interest up to that point. So far, the workshops have included about five people each. All of the invited employers have been existing clients of the occupational health program, but Gaster says potential clients also could be invited.

The workshops are not intended to sell employers on the idea of drug testing if they are not already interested, says Otto Rogers, MD, FACEP, medical director of occupational health services and the clinic’s medical review officer for drug testing. The attendees are already on the verge of testing, but they need a formal policy in place before going ahead or they need to get past a few concerns.

"We’ve found in the marketplace that a lot of employers believe in the concept of drug testing and decide to talk it up with the board of directors or the owner, but then it stops there," Rogers says. "Everyone’s interested but afraid of the policy side of it. Even if you give them a sample policy, they get stalled because of fears about implementing the program."

The workshops are held at a nearby office of the affiliated employee assistance program (EAP). FirstHealth works closely with the EAP to put on the workshop and also in managing the drug-testing programs for clients.

"We give them a sample policy and explain why it is the way it is, along with all the options for random testing and other ways to go with their testing program," Gaster says. "We also explain how we collect samples, and I go step by step in explaining the procedure and how we implement it all in the workplace." (See p. 15 for another planned workshop series addressing occupational health staff who collect the samples for drug testing.)

The EAP counselor also makes a pitch for providing EAP services to the employees, and the employers are provided a sample second-chance agreement for employees testing positive.

The meeting usually is scheduled from 11 a.m. to about 2 p.m. and includes time for questions from the attendees. Gaster notes that the attendees learn a lot from talking with each other about their concerns and hearing how other employers are implementing testing programs.

FirstHealth provides a lunch at no cost to the attendees. Gaster estimates that the workshop takes about 90 minutes of staff time to prepare.

Gaster has found that most workshop attendees follow through by instituting a testing program in the workplace.

"They had interest already, and they know that everyone else is testing," she says. "If they don’t test, they know they’re getting the leftover work force, and it’s a tight labor market now."

Employers are reminded to check with their attorneys before implementing a testing program, and the occupational health program and EAP offer to serve as resources while the employers implement the testing. There is no hard sell regarding the occupational health program’s testing services, but Gaster explains what services are offered and encourages the attendees to ask for any needed assistance.

"We find that most of our attendees do the drug testing through us," she says. "Our message is that if you’re going to drug testing, you should do it the right way. We can help you do that."