Drug use at work: Higher than we thought

February 3, 2011, 4:31 PM UTC

More workers use heroin on the job than previously thought. Some of them fly planes. A sobering look at some of the latest workplace drug use stats.

By Anne Fisher, contributor

First, the good news, such as it is: The number of Americans using cocaine while at work has declined sharply in the past couple of years, falling 29% between 2008 and 2009 alone, to about .29% of the population.

Now, the more disquieting news: Since the federal government tightened testing requirements last October, drug testing of employees like pilots, airplane mechanics, and train operators has revealed that twice as many employees as previously believed are using heroin and the use of prescription painkillers on the job is soaring.

Oral fluid testing of 320,000 employees from the workforce overall, between January and June 2010, detected the heroin marker 6-acetylmorphine at a rate of 0.04%, a huge increase over the 0.008% that had been found through urine tests. Separately, from the time new federal standards went into effect last October through the end of 2010, the marker showed up in 20% more transportation workers than before.

“It’s still a low incidence rate,” says Dr. Barry Sample, who runs the employer drug testing business at Quest Diagnostics, which based its findings on the results of more than 350,000 random drug tests. “Even so, you don’t want to see anyone in a public safety role test positive.

“We’re also seeing dramatic increases in on-the-job use of prescription opiates like oxycodone and oxymorphone,” sold under the brand names Vicodin and Oxycontin, among others, he says. Results from more than 5.5 million tests showed an 18% jump in opiate positives between 2008 and 2009, and a rise of over 40% since 2005.

Post-accident employee drug tests are four times as likely to show employee use of opiates than pre-employment drug screening (3.7% post-accident versus .78% pre-employment, in the case of hydrocodone), suggesting that the substances have played a role in workplace accidents.

What’s causing workers to come to work impaired?

“Stress in the workplace, which can play a role in increased substance use, has amplified in recent years due to job insecurity and a trend toward working longer hours,” says a report from the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Heath Services Administration.

The agency says that, of the 20.3 million adults in the U.S. classified as having substance use disorders in 2008 — the latest year for which figures are available –15.8 million were employed either full or part-time.

To combat the problem, most employers offer employee assistance programs (EAPs), including drug and alcohol counseling. There’s just one problem: Even employees who want to get help “are often reluctant because of fears that the counseling is not really confidential,” notes Ruth Donahue, a benefits specialist in the Chicago office of human resources consultants The Segal Company.

“That’s a particular concern in safety-sensitive jobs, where people know that even an inkling of a substance-abuse problem is grounds for immediate dismissal,” Donahue says.

The notion that seeking help from an EAP is risky is an unfortunate misperception: EAPs are designed to be truly confidential and are usually managed by outside providers who reveal nothing to employers.

“Even the billing, unlike medical-insurance claims, is completely anonymous,” says Donahue. “Employers need to convince people of that. They’re doing a better job of it recently, but we still have a long way to go.”