With little public debate, big corporations have adopted what amounts to zero-tolerance policy toward illicit drug use, at least by new employees. Almost all of the nation’s fortune 200 companies for example have instituted drug-testing programs in the past decade.
Surveys by the American Management Association, a trade group whose members are disproportionately large companies, estimates that about three-quarters of their members do drug testing – most on a pre-employment basis but with a growing number testing their workers randomly as well. Employees who institute drug testing believe it causes the rate of employee drug use to fall. Indeed, according to statistics released last month by Smith Kline Beecham Clinical Laboratories in Collegeville, Pa. positive drug-test results have plummeted to 5 percent, from 18.1 percent in 1987. Workers in safety-sensitive positions have the best records, according to the firm’s statistics, with only 3.5 percent testing positive for illegal drugs. But how did workplace drug testing become so pervasive so quickly? The answer seems to be that corporations saw many benefits especially in reducing the incidence of drug-related accidents in the workplace, and almost no drawbacks. Indeed, except from civil libertarians. there have been few public protests. The spread of testing has been extraordinarily rapid. particularly at big companies that offer good pay, health insurance, benefits and pension plans. In 1983, only six firms out of the Fortune 200 were testing their workers for drugs, but by 1991, 196 of the 200 largest companies were doing it, said employment lawyer Mark De Bernardo, executive director of the D.C-based institute for a Drug-Free Workplace, an employer group. “To go from six to 116 of the Fortune 200 in only eight years, that’s really revolutionary,” De Bernardo said. “Typically the wheels in Corporate America don’t turn that fast. This was a movement that spread from CEO to CEO”. De Bernardo said the trend was propelled by industry concerns about safety issues, absenteeism, productivity and liability for accidents, and its growth was hastened by waves of government regulation advocating drug crackdowns. “Now”, he said, “it has spread outward to businesses of almost every size around the country, the notable exceptions being Hollywood and Wall Street”.
“People who use drugs don’t apply at a company they know drug-tests said Dale Masi, a professor of social work at the University of Maryland at Baltimore and president of Masi Research Consultants, a D.C-based firm that advises major corporations on how to handle substance-abuse problems in the workplace. Companies know that if their competitors do it, they have to do it, or they will get all the users” Masi explained. “The individual with behavioral problems goes to the place of least resistance, and that happens to be in small businesses,” said Harold Green, president of Chamberlain Contractors Inc., a Laurel-based paving company. He instituted a drug-testing program 15 years ago, after a marijuana smoking employee was involved in a serious truck accident. He fired the driver then established a drug treatment and employee assistance plan, including drug testing, that was one the first of its kind in the country. When Green set up his drug-testing plan, it was nearly unprecedented, particularly among small firms like his.
Many observers and critics considered it jarringly invasive to ask job hunters or employees to urinate in a cup to prove themselves drug-free. But such criticisms were gradually overwhelmed by a louder chorus of support.