In the 1980s, when everyone was talking about the dangers posed by addicts in the workplace, Lewis Maltby was executive vice president and general counsel of Drexelbrook Engineering, a Pennsylvania company that designs and manufactures control systems for toxic chemicals. "This company makes a product that, if it doesn't work properly, could cause a Bhopal in the United States," says Maltby, now president of the National Workrights Institute. "Almost every job in the company is safety-sensitive."
Not surprisingly, Drexelbrook considered drug testing. Maltby, long active with the American Civil Liberties Union, was leery of the idea, but he could not deny that the company needed to make sure that its products were assembled properly. Ultimately, he says, "we decided that drug testing was a red herring. The real issue was building an organization that inherently produces quality and reliability."
That meant paying careful attention to every step of the process, including recruitment, hiring, training, supervision, and quality assurance. "We had a very systematic, company-wide program to make sure that everything we did was right," Maltby says. "If we had drug testing, it just would have been a distraction from the real business of safety."
Maltby's experience at Drexelbrook convinced him that drug testing was not the right answer even for employers with serious safety concerns. As an alternative, he has tried to promote impairment testing. Unlike urinalysis, which detects traces of drugs long after their effects have worn off, impairment testing is aimed at assessing an employee's current fitness for duty. The idea is to identify employees who are not up to snuff, whether the cause is illegal drugs, alcohol, medication, illness, personal troubles, or inadequate sleep.
Several different systems are currently available, including an electronic shape recognition test and a device that measures the eye's response to light. But Maltby was able to identify only 18 employers that have ever used such systems, and he suspects the total is not more than 25.
One reason impairment testing has never caught on is its lack of a track record, which poses something of a Catch-22. Although it seems to address safety concerns more directly than urinalysis does, employers are not inclined to adopt a new technology without solid evidence that it works—unless, like drug testing, it has the government's stamp of approval. That factor is especially important for federally regulated industries such as aviation and trucking, where employers who adopted impairment testing would still have to do drug tests.
Impairment testing also could raise new problems for employers, workers, and unions. "The information that impairment testing provides is the information that employers most need, but employers wouldn't know what to do with it," Maltby argues. "Running any kind of a business, you know 5 percent of your employees are showing up not really on the ball every day: sick kids, colds, divorces, death in the family, drugs, alcohol, hangovers. Figuring out what to do about 5 percent of your employees being unfit to work every day is a monumental challenge."
Michael Walsh, a Maryland-based drug testing consultant, calls impairment testing "sort of a holy grail." It's a sound idea in theory, he says, but "I haven't seen a good one that is usable….I have never seen any data that would convince a general audience of scientists that this is the way to go." But then, the same could be said of drug testing.