NE States Slow to Address Construction Site Drug Abuse

By Peter Cholakis | September 28, 2010

Drug abuse across New England job sites is arguably as bad as, if not worse than, other regions of the country. And while drug abuse is widespread in general, it's particularly severe within the construction sector.

Consider these sobering statistics: While 10 percent of workers aged 18 to 49 years old abuse drugs — whether they're using illicit drugs including cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine, or misusing prescription drugs such as Oxycontin® and Vicodin® — reported use in the construction sector is as high as 30 percent of workers.

Abuse Downplayed Here

In spite of the fact that many regions of the country are beginning to institute comprehensive drug-free workplace programs, New England remains significantly behind in this area, likely due to one, or a combination, of the following factors:

  1. Some union resistance to use of current testing technologies and techniques
  2. General anti-drug testing sentiment/apathy among corporations and legislators
  3. Ignorance about the extent of drug abuse in the New England region.

Though news headlines are common regarding the use of methamphetamine in the Midwest or Southwest, drug abuse in New England is often downplayed. In fact, the Boston metropolitan area has consistently reported some of the nation's highest drug abuse rates and emergency room visits due to drug abuse. Furthermore, drug abuse in the region is as bad, if not worse than ever.

Common Substances of Abuse

While illicit drugs such as heroin, cocaine, meth, and marijuana typically come to mind when discussing drug abuse, it's important to point out that up to 45 percent of emergency room visits in 2004 were attributed to non-medical use — i.e., misuse or abuse of prescription or over-the-counter (OTC) pharmaceuticals. Among the CNS (central nervous system) drugs, the most frequently abused were opiate/opioid analgesics (32 percent of visits involved non-medical use), including single-ingredient (e.g., oxycodone Oxycontin®, Percoset®, hydrocodone: Vicodin®) and combination forms (e.g., hydrocodone with acetaminophen).

Many drug testing programs are based on outdated 20- to 30-year-old government "standards" that include testing for marijuana, amphetamines, opiates, cocaine, and PCP. Presently the incidence of PCP abuse is extremely low, less than 0.05 percent, while up to 40 percent of drug abuse involves the non-medical use of prescription painkillers.

Why Drug Test?

Assuming New England has one of the highest incidences of drug abuse in America, why should a company institute a drug-free workplace program? Drug abusers can be involved with 65 percent of on-the-job accidents, and 40 percent of inventory shrinkage and employee theft. As well, they can negatively impact medical benefit utilization rates, affect employee turnover, and cause workplace violence. The way to address all this is simple: Create a drug-free workplace that is a safer, better, more productive environment.

A Drug-Free Workplace

Although a drug-free workplace program is typically tailored to a specific organization's requirements, it should include the following components whenever possible:

  • Corporate drug policy
  • Drug Education and Awareness
  • Drug Testing
  • Quantitative confirmatory testing (GC/MS)
  • Medical Review Officer Services
  • Employee Assistance Programs

It is important that the type of drug testing selected should allow for observed specimen collection — for example, oral fluid (saliva) or hair. This should take place on the job or in the laboratory.

And the type of testing should include the following: Pre-employment, Random, Reasonable Cause or Reasonable Suspicion, and Return-to-duty.

Drug testing, especially random drug testing using an effective format including observed specimen collection, is an essential requirement in order to achieve maximum benefit from any program.

Even though most drug testing today is done for pre-employment purposes only, the ineffectiveness of this approach is reflected in the fact that 75 percent of drug abusers in America are employed. Furthermore, the most widely used drug-testing method, urinalysis, is incompatible with directly observed specimen collection. Most drug abusers can easily defeat a urine-based drug test by simply using one of the hundreds of products readily available on the Internet.

Consider this statement during House of Representatives testimony in 2005 by Robert L. Stephenson, director of Division of Workplace Programs, Center for Substance Abuse Prevention, Substance Abuse in Mental Health Services Administration: "The effectiveness of required specimen validity testing has been limited because, as adulterants were identified and reported by laboratories and tests developed for them, the products themselves were changed by their manufacturers to avoid being detected."

Resistance in New England

Connecticut, Vermont, Maine, and Rhode Island are notable as being "anti-drug testing" (Guide to State and Federal Drug-Testing Law, 2006, Bernardo, Mark, A.), while Massachusetts has one of the highest concentrations of union laborers, many of whom do not support random testing. While construction companies across the United States have reduced on-the-job accident rates by 50 percent or more as well as received multiple other benefits associated with a drug free workplace, New England lags, just as it lags in other areas such as job growth. Any connection?

Author Information
Author Peter Cholakis is vice president of Avitar, Inc., which develops, manufactures and markets oral-based drug testing products.