As I wrote in this publication last summer, illicit drug use among construction workers is on an upward trend (see “Current Safety Trends in Construction,”ISHN Contractor Safety, July 2003). In recent studies by the Department of Health and Human Services, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), Office of Applied Statistics, workers reported that the construction trades ranking is among the top three abusing industries (along with retail trade and professional and related services).

When I was writing that article, MAPIC (Mechanical and Plumbing Industry Council) was in the midst of final negotiations on a substance abuse testing and treatment program for the union plumbing and pipefitting industry in the Greater Cleveland area. You’ll notice I used the word “industry,” because the program affects not only the labor force but management as well. What I learned through that negotiation process is that preparation, counseling and communication are necessary to establish a drug testing and treatment program.

Four years ago, our local labor-management committee, the Union Construction Industry Partnership (UCIP), was in the final rounds of drafting a new “uniform” program for the union construction industry in Cleveland. The Construction Industry Substance Abuse Program (CISAP) was originally designed to meet the needs of the larger owners/customers in northeast Ohio that required illicit drug testing for workers at their projects, at the same time eliminating duplicative testing.

Your local labor or management representative should have up-to-date information on the most recent developments in your area. And even if a substance abuse testing program is new to your area, your representative’s counterparts in other cities have probably already been through the development of a program.

Regardless of your industry, here are seven considerations to make when developing a workplace drug testing and treatment program.

1. What are others doing?

The “uniform” program in Cleveland was first adopted by Laborers Local Union 310 in January 2001. Since then, other union-association groups have joined to the extent that today the majority of the building trades have a program in place. For MAPIC, the wait provided an opportunity to witness all phases of “ramping up.” All aspects of the program, from the language in the written policy, to the training and testing needs, had been tested for several years. These “lessons learned” provided discussion points for our negotiating committee and also a direction for clarification in the written policy.

Talking with other individuals in my position was also helpful in understanding what to expect. Wayne Creasap, safety director for the Construction Employers Association in Cleveland, says, “We’ve relied heavily on input from our member contractors who have recognized potential problems, created policies and have experience with these programs. They have helped make the industry better for everyone.”

And while testimonials are important to understanding the unwritten nuances of the program, the effectiveness of the program in the long run will be just as impacted by a sound written policy.

2. Don’t reinvent the wheel

Even if you don’t have a direct resource for a program, don’t start a new program from scratch. There are more than enough free sources on the Internet to get the basis for a program, including the federal government. And while you may need to tweak the program to meet your needs and legal requirements, it’s a great head start.

3. State requirements and discounts

Currently, the state of Ohio requires contractors bidding or working on state-administered construction projects to adopt a drug-free workplace policy. While certainly the major benefit of this policy would be a safer workforce, the state has tied this requirement in with a discount program offered by the Bureau of Workers’ Compensation. Depending on the level of involvement, contractors can receive a 10 percent to 20 percent discount on their workers’ compensation premiums for up to five years.

4. Counseling and treatment options

An important aspect of any substance abuse program is counseling and treatment options. Whether these options are paid for as part of a health and welfare fund or are a component of a benefits plan, your program should provide a direction for participants to receive the assistance they need. There are also many federal and state programs that are available that often have no cost or income-based fees.

Most individuals with substance abuse or addiction issues do not heal on their own. Treatment offers the opportunity to gain professional support as well as the support and mirroring of peers.

5. Become part of a consortium

Take advantage of significant costs savings and ease of administration by establishing or signing up with an existing consortium. In Cleveland, UCIP oversees the operation of the CISAP, contracts with a third-party assistant to administer the program, and provides certified trainers for the education elements. And since consortiums are pooling large numbers of participants, the economy-of-scale contract provisions take effect and provide lower costs.

6. Watch for “conscientious objectors”

“It’s an invasion of my privacy.” “My employer just wants my medical information.”

Bottom line: The substances are either illegal or are being abused. Period! It’s hard to support a case of privacy when the source of the discussion is illegal. While we can discuss the legalization of certain illicit drugs for eons, the reasons most things are illegal is that they inherently provide a danger to you or others. Do your research. There are plenty of resources devoted to evaluation of illicit drug use, symptoms, long-term effects, flashbacks, etc., that all eventually draw the same conclusion: Without the use of illicit drugs or abuse of alcohol or prescribed drugs, the potential for death or serious physical or mental harm from use is eliminated.

As for medical records, recent laws have given you the right to decide who receives what information. And in the case of substance testing, only those tests that are needed for evaluation of the various prohibited substances are performed.

7. Let everyone know

Communicate to the workforce as soon as possible that the testing and treatment program is forthcoming. And while you may want to refrain from giving specifics as to when testing will start, present the main components and expectations early. This will put the workforce on notice. And as indicated earlier, a large part of the program is treatment and counseling. Early communication will give the general workforce a chance to refrain from the illegal use and to get assistance before it is mandated, which could possibly impact his/her ability to work.

SIDEBAR: Ready to go

  • Check on the status of state legislation;
  • Understand the history behind drug testing;
  • Test everyone, including labor and management;
  • Ensure accountability;
  • Have avenues for counseling and treatment.

SIDEBAR: Help online— searchable directory of facilities around the country that treat alcoholism, alcohol abuse and drug abuse problems — searchable directory of state alcohol and drug abuse agencies