Businesses look to tighten drug testing

2014-03-10T00:30:00Z 2014-03-10T14:38:09Z Businesses look to tighten drug testingEd Bierschenk edwin.bierschenk@nwi.com, (219) 933-4195 nwitimes.com

Some major companies appear to be tightening up requirements for drug screening of construction contractors working at their facilities in Northwest Indiana.

A recent decision by the BP Whiting Refinery to require immediate, on-site testing of contractors represents a change from a procedure used for the past two decades by the local trades. The latest procedure is expected to be followed by other major firms in the area.

Quest Diagnostics, which has about 2,200 patient service centers and laboratories in most major metropolitan centers, reported in November a 74 percent decline in drug use among American workers during the past 25 years in an analysis of more than 125 million workplace urine drug tests.

The rate for those testing positive for drugs declined to 3.5 percent in 2012 from 13.6 percent in 1988, according to the company.

Despite reports that failure rates of pre-employment drug screening have dropped over the years, the issue is still a problem for many industries.

Brian Burton, a vice president with the Indiana Manufacturers Association, said he has heard of failure rates as high as 50 percent, although not everyone sees those types of rates.

"It is an issue of great importance, especially the manufacturing industry, because of the functions of the jobs," he said.

The issue is not specific to one industry or geographic area of the state, but a problem "across the board," he said.

The high failure rates can be frustrating to employers who believe they have found someone with the proper skills for a job, only to have the applicant fail the drug screening. It is a problem that affects production and output as well as workers compensation, he said.

Various major local employers, such as ArcelorMittal and at least two local casinos, did not respond to The Times' requests for comments or declined to comment for this story.

"I appreciate you reaching out for help with your story, but due to the sensitive nature of this article, we have to pass on participating," wrote Jennifer Galle, a spokeswoman with Hammond Horseshoe Casino, in an email.

Businesses with more than 500 employees are more likely to conduct drug testing for contract employees than smaller firms, according to a 2011 survey by the Society of Human Resource Management of randomly selected companies.

In Northwest Indiana, the local construction industry since 1991 has conducted random drug testing through the Building Construction Resource Center Inc., spurred by the steel industry and oil refineries.

The trade unions initially resisted the idea, and it took three years to put a program together, said Robert Anadell, executive director of the Building Construction Resource Center.

Anadell believes the program was the first in the country that covered all the crafts. The boilermakers union was part of the program for a couple of years before starting its own separate testing program, he said.

The Building Construction Resource Center program involves sending requests to a random sample of about 5 percent of the membership per month asking them to submit to testing within seven days. Anadell said by the time the mailing arrives, the worker may actually have only three days to take the test.

Over a year, 55 to 60 percent of the membership is tested with everyone tested at least once every two years, Anadell said.

The rate of people testing positive runs about 2.5 to 2.7 percent, Anadell said.

"I don't see it as a big problem in our industry," he said.

The drug of choice still seems to be marijuana, followed by cocaine and then prescription drugs, he said.

The program's cost is covered by the construction companies in the form of a contribution of 8 cents an hour per worker. The workers are given a stipend of $40 to pay for their time to take the test.

The fee covers the testing costs and an employee assistance program for workers who fail the test.

About 23,000 tradespeople are covered in an area that extends to South Bend and Fort Wayne. In the last couple of years, the program has expanded into the Springfield, Ill., area.

Despite drop in abuse, drug concerns still loom

Sharon Burden, executive director of the Alcohol and Addictions Resource Center in South Bend, wasn't surprised about the decline in drug abuse by workers. She said the word is out that most employers are testing.

"When you have someone who has been smoking (marijuana) recreationally or socially and they land a job with great pay and benefits, the value of smoking versus the risk of losing a good job shifts," Burden said.

"There will always be some who play the odds with random testing and certainly those who are dependent will continue to use, but for many they don't have a problem walking away from smoking marijuana because the value is not worth the risk."

Joe Coar, vice president of Tonn & Blank Construction LLC and chairman of the Northwest Indiana Business Roundtable, said there is no question all industries struggle with new hires due to drug issues.

"This is a real concern with graduating students as they try to enter the workforce as we see it today. The construction industry that I represent has very high standards and will not accept any apprenticeship applicants into their programs that test positive for drugs," Coar said.

Jon Groth, director of career and education services at Porter County Education Services, said his institution has become more proactive over the years to make its students aware they need to be drug free when seeking employment.

"About 15 years ago we were getting good jobs lined up for candidates, but then they would fail their drug tests," Groth said.

Instead of dealing with the problem when the applicants came back, they put the emphasis on drug-abuse education early in the program, Groth said.

The education process included bringing in employers who told students they would face a drug test as part of the hiring process.

"I think we have really turned the corner," Groth said.

Speros A. Batistatos, president and chief executive officer of the South Shore Convention and Visitors Authority, estimated 85 percent of the major casinos, hotels and restaurants in the area have pre-employment or post-employment drug testing. The other 15 percent that do not will test if an employee is injured on the job, he said.

He said none of the companies he has spoken with have trouble finding employees because of the drug-testing procedures.

Despite the decline in drug abuse, employers are still concerned about drug use among workers. Some of the companies also are not satisfied the testing done goes far enough.

"Some companies were concerned about the testing and wanted a more rapid test," Anadell said.

The first company requiring more immediate, on-site testing was the BP Whiting Refinery, Anadell said, but he expects it to spread to other major industries in the area.

Employees will have one hour plus travel time to take the test, according to the Building Construction Resource Center.

"It was instituted to make the contractors' testing program consistent with our own internal testing program," said Tom Keilman, director of government and public affairs for BP.

Keilman said BP requires all employees undergo a pre-screening process prior to starting employment.

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