The safety myth of Workplace Drug Testing

I’ve long been an opponent of mandatory workplace drug testing, either for pre-screening or random suspicion-less testing. I would never work for a company that requires it.

For one thing, workplace drug testing establishes a relationship that says the employee (and his/her body) is somehow “property” of the company, rather than a valued contributor. Additionally, workplace drug testing shows a lack of management competence, relying on flawed tests that don’t even distinguish between impairment and non-impairment, when any supervisor that has even a modicum of capability can identify an impaired employee without a test.

Why would I want to work for a company that is incompetent and considers me property?

The big lie of workplace drug testing is that it is necessary for workplace safety and to reduce workplace accidents. This is how the drug-free workplace program has been sold all across the country to the huge financial benefit of drug-testing companies, and to the detriment of the individual and the corporation that ends up paying in drug testing costs and loss of employee trust.

For many years, those who pushed for workplace drug testing touted the “Firestone Study” which supposedly claimed that:

“Recreational drug users are five times more likely to file a workers’ compensation claim and 3.7 times more likely to be involved in workplace accidents than other workers”

That was repeated uncritically in government workshops and webpages as fact (as well as in testimony to Congress). The only problem is that there was no “Firestone Study.” Researchers were able to track this mythical study to remarks from Firestone’s medical director about something else entirely.

After a number of calls and queries I received a two page document from Firestone’s Medical Director, E. Gates Morgan. The report apears to be an in-house newsletter. In it, a Mr. Ed Johnson is interviewed about the Employer Assistance Program (“EAP”) at Firestone. There are some statements pertaining to absenteeism, but these are not documented, and more importantly, refer only to a few alcoholics who have been served by the Firestone EAP. The statistics generated (if these calculations based on alcoholics were actually made) have nothing to do with drug users, recreational or otherwise.

The statistics cited about absenteeism and workers’ compensation claims may have been derived from interviews with alcoholic workers enrolled in the EAP at Firestone. These people were not identified by urine testing for alcohol, but were referred because they or others perceived that their lives were falling apart. They, unlike workers randomly tested for drug use, were dysfunctional. To use them as a justification for testing unimpaired workers is like demanding that all workers have mandatory periodic rectal temperatures taken because a case of tuberculosis was found in the workplace.

A 1994 review by the National academy of sciences said that “Despite beliefs to the contrary, the preventive effects of drug-testing programs have never been adequately demonstrated. … The data obtained in worker population studies, do not provide clear evidence of the deleterious effects of drugs other than alcohol on safety and other job performance indicators.”

Today, the Australian Drug Law Reform Foundation reports on a study by the National Centre for Education and Training on Addiction (NCETA) at Flinders University. There is a fact sheet and the full study (pdf).

The fact sheet notes:

Does workplace testing improve workplace safety?

Evidence is inconclusive regarding the efficacy of drug testing in reducing workplace accidents and injuries. While some studies suggest that testing can reduce injury and accident rates, more rigorous studies indicate testing has only a small effect or no effect at all. Claims that workplace testing can substantially reduce workplace injuries, accidents and compensation claims are not supported by the available research evidence.

The ADLRF goes on to give some good reasons for opposing drug place testing.

Here’s another bit from the study that I found interesting:

While there is evidence that alcohol and drugs play a role in workplace accidents and injuries, there is also a growing body of evidence indicating other factors may play a more important role such as:

  • fatigue
  • noise
  • dirt
  • dangerous working conditions
  • conflict at work
  • poor working conditions and procedures
  • poorly maintained equipment
  • insufficient training and supervision of employees.

And this:

Distinguishing between workplace and workforce use is important when establishing workplace safety risk. Workers who consume alcohol or drugs away from the workplace and who do not return to work until the effects of consumption (e.g., intoxication, hangover, fatigue) have dissipated are unlikely to be a direct risk to safety. By contrast, consumption during (or just prior to) work hours or consumption at the workplace after work hours, is more likely to produce a direct safety and/or productivity risk.

Past research concerning workers’ alcohol and drug use has generally failed to adequately differentiate workforce from workplace alcohol and other drug use. Similarly, substance use and substance impairment are very different, as use alone does not automatically infer impairment.

The report also had this to say about testing technology:

The most common types of testing technologies used in the workplace are breath analysis, urinalysis, and saliva testing. All three test technologies have limitations. Apart from breath analysis, which can detect alcohol intoxication, no other workplace drug test can detect intoxication or impairment. Urinalysis is particularly problematic due to its inability to distinguish between recent and past drug use.

I’d like to see someone challenge the Department of Labor with this information. Let’s establish policies based on fact and science and not on adding profits to the drug testing companies.

[Thanks, Evert]
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44 Responses to The safety myth of Workplace Drug Testing

  1. Cliff says:

    Thank you Pete, as someone who has refused to work anywhere the war on some drugs testing is used (since 1990 or so), I have been saying this for so long I have almost forgotten how long it’s been.

  2. Brandon E. says:

    I need a job pretty badly at the moment, I just wish I had the choice of picking one that doesn’t drug test me. The vast majority do, though, so I’m stuck circumventing the law to feed myself. Isn’t prohibition wonderful?

    • Duncan20903 says:


      I always recommend synthetic urine in the short term, and lessons in creative solutions for the long term. While starving to death always precludes long term happiness, selling your soul for food comes in a very close second. My boss has no problem with my love of cannabis. He actually shares the passion equally. He really wasn’t a hard person to find. If you’re a competent worker I’m certain you can find such a boss. I wish someone had told me to start by looking in the mirror, because that’s where I found him.

  3. Novartis says:

    I have observed that the only places requiring drug testing before completing consideration for employment are minimum wage jobs and some government. Most higher paying jobs don’t even bother drug testing. I have recently landed a job with HP which does not drug test and have observed half my co-workers smoke a joint at lunch or are self medicating without prescriptions. I personally smoke a joint with my coffee and pack a bowl at lunch, which i sometimes share with any random coworker or even have out of the clock business meeting with my superiors over a smoke.

  4. Brian Gulino says:

    While I support drug legalization, I personally choose not to associate with, or work with people who do recreational drugs. Drug users are not a protected class.

    • Duncan20903 says:


      Nor does anyone suggest that they should be a protected class. But thanks for that straw man. A guy just can’t get enough opportunities to watch people beat the stuffing out of a straw man and boy did you beat that poor guy silly. Silly!

    • Francis says:

      Well, I appreciate the legal support, but I’m not crazy about the bigotry. And your circle of friends must be pretty tiny if you’re excluding all recreational drug users. I believe the percentage of Americans who consume alcohol on occasion is pretty close to 70%. I’ve got some bad news for you. You’re almost certainly associating with pot smokers without even knowing it! I was one of those people who until my mid-twenties thought that I didn’t know any cannabis enthusiasts. When I began enjoying cannabis myself, I was astonished to discover how many of us there are (and in places I would have never expected). It’s kind of like how the early Christians found one another while trying to avoid Roman persecution. (For example, instead of drawing a fish symbol, we might draw a Phish symbol.)

      • Pete says:

        Yes, Brian, you might want to be a little more specific on which recreational drugs you use as a guideline for avoiding friends and co-workers. Caffeine could be considered a recreational drug. Alcohol definitely is one.

        If you’d like to avoid associating with those people, that’s your choice, although I suggest that you may miss out on a lot of very good people that way.

    • divadab says:

      Neither tobacco smokers nor obese persons are members of a protected class, either. And these are far more likely to cost the company more than a cannabis user in health care costs.

      Why would you want to work for a company that is too stupid to tell the difference and applies a policy blindly that excludes people who may have used cannabis sometime in the past month but hires an obese tobacco smoker?

      Why is America failing? At least partly by the stone-headed application of policies which exclude the most creative: you get rule by the most obedient and unimaginative.

      It will take decades to undo this authoritarian stupidity after it crashes itself.

  5. Ban Everything To Keep Me Safe says:

    I saw a funny demotivational poster for prohibition. It showed some 1930s era gangsters standing on the running boards of a 1934 Ford with Thompson sub guns. The caption read: Prohibition, it didn’t work the last time either.

  6. Goblet says:

    I think a pre-employment drug test isn’t really testing for drugs, rather, it is testing for intelligence – if you aren’t smart enough to know how to beat a drug test they don’t want you working for them. I’ve never failed one…

  7. Duncan20903 says:


    I insist that all of my employees pass a 4 part drug test. Oral, multiple choice, essay, and proof of the presence of cannabis metabolites (urine, hair, blood, or just share during the interview). I wouldn’t want to take a chance that a prohibitionist might slip through the cracks!

  8. allan says:

    god… how I hate drug testing. It was here at pete’s I first heard the lowdown on “the Firestone Study.” There was a doc here who was a regular had all the links, turned me on to actual workplace impairment testing.

    I played the pee test route once. Got a mediocre job at $12+ and actually hadn’t smoked in months (and yes the withdrawal was terrible!) so passing the pre-employment was a breeze. After I’d worked there about six months I was feelin’ kinda cruddy on a Sunday so I said what the hell, what are the odds? and I smoked a bowl… damn good bowl too. Perked my attitude up, I went out and played with my camera, took a walk, did some stuff around the house… went to work the next day and I got called to head to the pee test ladies.

    I fought with my employers at first, arguing basically what Pete laid out above. I quoted that obscure document that addresses “no searches w/o a warrant…” and basically was told that in spite of my excellent work, the praise of all the store mgrs and all my co-workers they weren’t budging. So… FTS. Never again.

    I’m a single dad that was raising two teens, I had that full time job and 3 part time jobs… and to have microscopic particles in my urine determine whether I’m employed or self-unemployed is a farce of the greatest extreme. I’ve always done good work and don’t plan to change. These days if someone wants my urine they need to hold out their hands ’cause I ain’t peeing in a cup again. I repeat, FTS…

  9. Sandhillpam says:

    Most of the companies I’ve worked for did not drug test because they wanted to; they did it because it was an insurance requirement. It was the workers comp insurers that mandated the testing.
    Also,in Florida, injured workers are drug tested and denied workers compensation coverage if any evidence of substance use is found! I guess they figure it works because there are now fewer reported injuries.

    • Tommy says:

      I’ve seen that scam too. Also in a related scam I’ve heard of employers using drug tests as collective punishment if someone files a worker’s comp claim.

  10. I was the 3rd (4th? we were pretty loosey-goosey…) employee in a telecommunicarions start-up that received more than 300 million dollars in private equity from the familty that founded General Dynamics – before we ever turned a profit. Being loosey-goosey was an interesting dance with their corporate culture, as they routinely required drug testing for new employees, including executives. At about the 200 million dollar mark of their investment, they decided to offer our employees access to their corporate health plan. And to be enrolled, we had to pee in the cup.

    We had around 50 employees in 4 northern states by then, and a corporate team of maybe 8 here in Florida. As a company executive, I helped draft our case to exempt our employees from the drug-test requirement. We argued it was a trust and personal liberty issue, while delicately implying recreational drug use wasn’t such a bad thing (our CEO knew his number 2 guy, a brilliant numbers guy, and me, far less brilliant but the best at what I did, had been eating acid for many years). In any event, we won the debate. Our funding partners made many more hundreds of millions than they invested, and everyone had a good time.

    My point? Our funding partners (about as corporate a company and dialed into the government as any other) respond positively to logic and reason and, somewhat bemused, turned a blind eye. So you can say what you want about the corporate elite, but they’re not all evil all the time.

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  14. claygooding says:

    As long as my news moderator job doesn’t drug test me,,at a marijuana site,,I am good.

  15. Servetus says:

    A variation of an old maxim applies: if employees aren’t broken, don’t fix them.

  16. SquirrelsArePeopleToo! says:
  17. Francis says:

    OT: Medical marijuana a threat to state’s children

    It’s otherwise pretty standard prohib fare, but I did get a laugh out of this:

    The teenage years are when our brains develop pleasure sensors that have lifelong significance. Typically a teenager derives a small hit of dopamine when parents provide affirmation for doing a good job babysitting, taking out the trash or doing other chores to help the family. These hits of dopamine train us, in a way, to do what is helpful or expected of us and to appreciate relationships.

    • Duncan20903 says:


      Well Mr. Suthers is a fairly standard issue foaming at the mouth prohibitionist. I think it’s amusing that they present a count of how many school children have gotten a taste of “medical” merrywanna. Gosh, we used to sit around forlorn, straight, and wishing that there was such a thing as “medical” merrywanna back in the ’70s. Pot was so hard to find back then. We would even write letters to Cheech & Chong begging them to open up a dispensary so that we could get high. But back then all of the pot was placebo weed and we never did manage o get high, not even once.

      • he he he says:

        John Suthers just got a jolly good whomping.

        • Duncan20903 says:


          “In their sties, with all their backing,
          They don’t care what goes on around.
          In their eyes, there’s something lacking;
          What they need’s a damn good whacking!”

          “Piggies” ~~ J. Lennon/P. McCartney

  18. pt says:

    It is silly to think that workplace drug testing has anything to do with safety, workplace drug testing is mostly about not having to pay workmans comp claims and writing off responsibility for accidents. If you are at a job and the victim of an accident, which in no way could have possibly been caused by you, but you have pot in your urine, they don’t have to pay anything.

  19. Steve says:

    My .02 cents. I will keep it short – who gets to decide what is tested for? Obviously, most of us are discussing this topic because of cannabis/marijuana (easily the most demonized and easiest to test for because it stays in the system for such a long time.) People are hopped up on all kinds of things, especially prescriptions – don’t see much testing for that…OTC medicines, Robitussin and such – don’t see testing for that…coke, shrooms, etc., they are in your system for what 2 days…to me it is solely for the purpose of reducing insurance premiums and to continue to make weed look bad…it is a sad conspiracy and nothing else.

    …and to Brian up above who doesn’t “associate” with recreational drug users. You obviously don’t use them yourself, but you think you can pick them up out of a lineup? Sure somebody who is all cracked out or on heroin maybe, but I’d bet big money you couldn’t pick out the guy who had a couple beers at lunch, the guy that hit his bowl at lunch or the guy who decided instead of one perc, I’ll take two, or even the guy that decided to take a caffeine pill and then drink a couple of Red Bulls with his sandwich – yep, those are all users…sorry man, they are all around you.

    • pt says:

      Absolutely, weed is the only way drug testing companies stay in business. I don’t even call workplace drug testing a “drug test” I call it a weed test.

      • Francis says:

        Yeah, it would be interesting to see some stats on “failed” drug tests and which drugs are actually being detected.

  20. InSearchOfPolonia says:

    “Dear Mr. Chabot, please see each and every comment below (and later, above) in order to put the full measure of your sick mind in perspective.”Steve

    • Duncan20903 says:

      I thought everyone was particularly polite to Mr. Chabot in that comments section. That is “the” Paul Chabot we’re denigrating you know.

  21. allan says:

    I found that obscure document I mentioned above and here’s what it says about pee testing:

    The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

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  23. thelbert says:

    i have worked in a few machine shops and shipyards and only had to prove my purity once. i was able to fake purity of blood to the satisfaction of a shipbuilding firm and got to help build a tugboat. any other job i had was dangerous enough to ensure there would be no get-high ’til after work. you learn to be careful in machine shop, or you start missing fingers.

  24. Jose says:

    This one really strikes a nerve with me. I have been a small business co-owner in the IT industry for over a decade. In that time I have never drug tested an employee. Much to the prohibs dismay…. I have never had a problem with an “illegal” drug using employee. In fact, legal alcohol and legal painkillers have been a much different matter in terms of lost employee productivity.

    From an employer perspective I see two very different animals. A mature heavy cannabis user is more likely to go home, relax, vape some bud and go to bed. A heavy drinker is likely to stay in a bar, relax, and close it down. Now which ones personal life affects me more? It’s the one who comes in late the next morning, reeking of booze, slumped over their desk in a painful stupor while eating aspirins and draining the break room coffee pot. Not to mention what the custodian and other employees must suffer as a result of what they do in the bathroom. Just my .02 from firsthand experience.

  25. CLiff says:


    Bravo good sir! If I was in IT I would love to work for you.

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