Proof Positive

In the past 15 years, drug testing in the U.S. workplace has gone from ground zero to widespread employer acceptance. In 1983, less than 1 percent of employees were subject to drug testing. Today, about 49 percent of full-time workers are subject to some form of workplace drug testing, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, a division of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

A major contributor to this increase is the Omnibus Transportation Employee Testing Act of 1991, which requires drug and alcohol testing of safety-sensitive transportation employees in aviation, trucking, railroads, mass transit, pipelines and other transportation industries. Testing of landscape construction workers has been an outgrowth.


“Screening on a pre-employment basis would be a very wise thing to do for a business owner, particularly in grounds maintenance where heavy equipment use is involved as well as working on other people's property,” says Joseph Reilly, chairman of the board for the Drug & Alcohol Testing Industry Association. “You want to make sure you have an employee coming on board who is free of drugs and not a substance abuser.”

David Snodgrass, president and co-owner of Dennis' Seven Dees Landscaping in Portland, Ore., notes that easy entry into the green industry is a wide-open gate. “Studies have shown that those who abuse drugs tend to switch employers often, sometimes three or more times a year. Those companies that hire on the spot are perfect targets for these types of employees.”

Dennis' Seven Dees Landscaping has had a drug-testing program in place for more than 10 years and, according to Snodgrass, it has served them well. The company's program tests all pre-hire candidates and tests employees when there is suspicion of drug use, usually at the time of an accident. Snodgrass's company has worked closely with a local hospital that administers the drug testing. That procedure may be changing soon, however, as an onsite saliva test is currently being researched. Snodgrass says that the saliva test may save his company half or more of the costs of using the hospital's resources.

Even without random testing, Snodgrass notes that no “tests for suspicion” have ever come up positive. He attributes this success to a top-quality workforce that approaches his company for a job.

“Because we test, word is on the street that we're not a company that condones drug abuse on the job. And so, we attract clean employees,” says Snodgrass, who is also chairman of the Professional Landcare Network (PLANET) safety and risk management committee. “For the company that thinks it's too small, or that if they tested they would end up with no employees, that company's reputation works against them. In fact, they're better off not having any employees at all.”

Comments like, “I can't institute a drug-free policy because I'll lose all my employees” are, according to Reilly, “mythical statements.”

“They might lose about 5 to 10 percent of their employees, but those were the ones that they needed to lose anyway,” says Reilly. “In a small business, one employee who is involved in substance abuse can have devastating effects on that business.”

“The fact that you're a drug-free workplace works well in any recruitment ads,” says Mel Kleiman, principal at Houston-based Humetrics, a human resources consultant group. “When you run the ads, you'll get fewer people responding to it. But they'll be less likely to be drug users.”

Kleiman suggests that, if you have a drug-free workplace, you should strive to weed out applicants before there's even a need for “testing for cause.”

“One of the interview questions you should ask is, ‘Did your last employer require a drug test?’” says Kleiman. “The other question is, ‘Are you willing to take a drug test today?’ If you simply ask whether they're willing to take a drug test, you'll find that almost all will answer ‘yes.’ But if you ask if they're willing to take it today or tomorrow, the ‘yes’ answers will drop.”

The high cost of employing such workers can be enough to close a business. And out-of-pocket expense is just the beginning.

“With lowered morale, high absenteeism, the risk of lawsuits because of at-fault accidents, the endangerment of others, and increased premiums due to higher rates of accidents can easily add up to four times the out-of-pocket costs,” says Snodgrass. “In addition, a company without a drug-testing policy and a high accident rate risks not being able to even get insured. Insurance companies are getting smarter about this.”

According to a 2001 Cornell University study titled “Evaluation of Drug Testing in the Workplace: Study of the Construction Industry,” the average company in the study sample experienced a 51-percent reduction in its injury rate within two years of implementing a drug-testing program. As a result, workers' comp costs dropped by more than 10 percent.


Preventing drug abuse while on the job goes beyond the pre-employment screening. “It should be a comprehensive program that includes a policy that outlines what a company will do as far as screening, as well as additional testing for existing employees,” says Reilly. “So it's not just get clean, get a job and that's the end of it.”

For companies setting out to initiate a new program, Reilly recommends three primary resources. The first being companies like Florida Drug Screening, Inc., of which Reilly is president, which are commonly referred to as third-party administrators. “We help small businesses set up drug-free workplaces, including policies and procedures, as well as a mechanism for the testing to occur in their local area.”

Secondary resources can be found online, such as the U.S. Department of Labor's “working partners” Web site (, with an interactive policy maker, a quick-and-dirty program that allows visitors to create their own drug-free workplace policy.

“Finally,” says Reilly, “there are attorneys and consultants who help people make policy and get procedures together.”


Rosenberg, Texas-based Turfgrass America, with approximately 800 employees at peak season, began its drug-free program in March. Kathy Romero, human resources manager, says that her company chose to begin drug testing “for the safety of all of our employees, as well as to keep our workers' comp costs down. We have to do that for our drivers for DOT anyway, so we decided to do it for all employees.”

Even Turfgrass America co-founder Arthur Milberger comes under the new policy: “Now, if we have a fender bender — even if it's me, going home today — we have to go to the nearest clinic and have a blood test and be screened for drugs. And it's a good thing, because it clears up any misunderstanding. If we get sued, and an incident is brought up, we can say we got tested and it was perfectly fine. We're covered.”

Turfgrass America gives employees at least a 60-day notice before conducting random drug testing, which is administered by trained personnel. All of the company's managers will eventually be trained how to look for suspicious drug-related offenses.

“The most proven drug-testing method is a urine test collected by a trained collector and sent to a laboratory for both an initial screen and, if positive, what's called a GCMS confirmation,” says Reilly. “Then that result is reviewed and verified by a medical review officer to rule out any legitimate medical explanation or legally prescribed medication. This method is the predominate method of drug testing that's been in place for the last 20 years. When everything is done properly, those tests always hold up in court.”

Other onsite tests, such as saliva and breath tests, are becoming more popular due to convenience, low costs and less invasive procedures.

Some civil rights groups have voiced concerns over presumed rights violations. But, according to Reilly, drug testing is legal in every U.S. state. Rights can only be violated when policies are lax or inconsistently administered.

“The most important thing is to have a policy in place and to follow that policy consistently,” says Reilly. “That keeps the business owner out of court. The third-party administrator will have programs in place in a particular state that comply with that state's laws, because that's the administrator's specialty — that's their business. Most administrators have already had attorneys review their policies; they're basically using a template policy for the small business. That said, any policy that a company implements should first be run by their attorney for that final seal of approval.”

Reilly advises having a policy created by a third-party administrator, then having an attorney review it. “You don't want to pay your attorney all the money involved in writing the policy, something that's been written before. There's plenty of sample policies out there, even on the Internet, that a person could tweak for his or her own use.”

PLANET has produced a safety program CD that includes a model safety program, part of which includes a replicable drug-testing policy. For PLANET, says Snodgrass, addressing the drug issue “has been on our list of best practices.”

“In our industry, with the trucks and other machinery that we operate, there's a big risk not testing for drugs,” adds Snodgrass. “It's risky enough in our business with employees who have all their faculties about them. You just multiply that risk when drugs are involved.”

Tracy Powell is a freelance writer who resides in Charlestown, Ind.

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