Drug-Free Workplace Programs: A Brief Introduction

May 14, 2021

By a Biometrica staffer

Several states across the U.S. have legalized the use of cannabis, either for medical or recreational purposes or both, over the past six months or so. With that comes questions for employers on how to address a possible impact on their workplace drug testing programs. Fifteen states, as well as the District of Columbia and some cities, prohibit employers in some form or fashion from testing or taking adverse employment actions based on an employee’s legal marijuana use, an article by legal intelligence repository, JD Supra, states. With this in mind, we bring you the first of a series of posts on drug-free workplaces.

In today’s post, we take you through the fundamentals of the concept, the Department of Health and Human Services’s (HHS) guidelines on federal workplace drug-testing programs, and drug-testing programs. Drug-free workplace regulations are governed by the Drug-Free Workplace Act of 1988. The Act defines a drug-free workplace as one where “the unlawful manufacture, distribution, dispensation, possession, or use of a controlled substance is prohibited.” It is as important for employers, as it is for employees, to create a safe working environment and encourage personal health and well-being. But, the abuse of drugs, alcohol, and other substances on the job can be unsafe and counterproductive to good work practices. It can also pose a serious threat to other employees, customers, vendors etc.

Most employers strictly prohibit the use, possession, and sale of illegal drugs and alcohol at work. Some employers, regulated by a U.S. government agency like the Department of Transportation, have mandated procedures in place. The Federal Drug-Free Workplace Program is a comprehensive program to address illicit drug use by federal employees.

Studies suggest that many adults who use illegal drugs are employed full or part time, the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIH) says. The NIH adds that when compared with those who do not use substances, employees who use substances are more likely to:

  • Change jobs frequently.
  • Be late to or absent from work.
  • Be less productive.
  • Be involved in a workplace accident and potentially harm others.
  • File a workers’ compensation claim.

On the other hand, employers with successful drug-free workplace programs report improvements in morale and productivity, and decreases in absenteeism, accidents, downtime, turnover, and theft. Those with long-standing drug-free programs have also reported better health status among employees and family members and reduced healthcare costs, NIH adds on its website. Some organizations with drug-free workplace programs also qualify for incentives, such as decreased costs associated with short- and long-term disability and workers’s compensation.

The National Drug-Free Workplace Alliance (NDWA) — a division of Drug Free America Foundation, Inc. (DFAF), an international drug prevention and policy organization dedicated to prevention of substance abuse around the world — says there are six major components of a drug-free workplace:

  • Assessment: Allows an employer to assess the workplace environment to determine the needs of the company.
  • Policy Development: Creating a written drug-free workplace policy that tells everyone the organization’s position on alcohol and other drug abuse and explains what will happen if the policy is violated.
  • Employee Education: Introducing the drug-free workplace program to employees and informing them about alcohol- and other drug-related issues.
  • Supervisor Training: Providing managers and supervisors with valuable support in introducing and carrying out a drug-free workplace program. They are trained in the signs and symptoms of substance use and how to intervene.
  • Employee Assistance Program (EAP): Allows an organization to offer help to employees with a variety of problems which could affect their job performance, including personal problems or problems with alcohol or other drugs. 
  • Drug Testing: A means to determine the facts of whether an employee or prospective new hire has recently used drugs. Programs require the following, to be fully successful: careful planning, consistently applied procedures, strict confidentiality, and provisions for appeal.

Creating drug-free workplace programs can sometimes make you wonder where and how to begin, or you may have more specific issues that you need help dealing with. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) runs a helpline to aid in the creation and running of drug-free programs at workplaces. provides confidential, practical, impartial, and up-to-date information, advice, and support free of charge to employees and their families. You can reach the Drug-Free Workplace Helpline at 1-800-WORKPLACE (967-5752).

HHS Mandatory Guidelines

According to the SAMHSA website: The HHS, by authority of Section 503 of Public Law 100-71 (PDF | 31 KB) 5 U.S.C. Section 7301 and Executive Order 12564, establishes the scientific and technical guidelines for federal workplace drug-testing programs. HHS also establishes standards for certified labs that conduct urine drug-testing for federal agencies. Mandatory guidelines for federal workplace drug testing of urine specimens were established in 1988 and updated in 2017. In 2019, Congress allowed federal executive branch agencies to also collect and test oral fluid specimens as part of their drug testing programs. For more on everything from the revised Urine Mandatory Guidelines, Oral Fluid Mandatory Guidelines, other new proposed guidelines, drug-testing and other employer resources, specimen collection resources, and more, from SAMHSA click here.

Drug Testing

Some schools, hospitals, and places of employment require drug testing. This can be done in various ways, including: Pre-employment testing, random testing, reasonable suspicion/cause testing, post-accident testing, return to duty testing, and follow-up testing. It typically involves collecting urine samples to test for drugs such as marijuana, cocaine, amphetamines, PCP, and opioids. Tests vary, depending on the type of drug being tested for, and the type of specimen being collected. Urine, hair, saliva (oral fluid), or sweat can be used as test specimens.

Workplace drug-testing programs are formulated with the end goal of detecting the presence of alcohol, illicit drugs, or certain prescription drugs. It is considered a way to prevent and deter employees, and is often only one part of a comprehensive drug-free workplace program. Both federal and non-federal workplaces may have drug testing programs in place. All workplace drug-testing programs must comply with applicable local, state, and federal laws.

Federal agencies must use certified labs and follow other guidelines for drug testing. But even before you begin drug testing, the SAMHSA website says, you need to ask the following questions and consider how they will affect the program, and address each question when framing policy around it:

  • Who receives testing?
  • When are the drug tests given?
  • Who conducts the testing?
  • What substances are tested for?
  • Who pays for the drug testing?
  • What steps are taken to ensure the accuracy of the drug tests?
  • What are the legal rights of employees who receive a positive test result?

Tests may be done by a trained collector who visits your workplace to collect specimens, or your employees can also visit a certified laboratory. To ensure accuracy, the specimen’s chain of custody must be continuous from receipt until disposal.

SAMHSA says employers need to develop a system to protect the confidentiality of employee drug-testing records. “Select a person within your organization who will be responsible for receiving employee drug test results, and make sure that the person is aware of confidentiality protocols. Explain the relationship of the drug testing program to your organization’s employee assistance plan (EAP), if one is offered. Let employees know how drug-testing results can be used to inform their treatment, rehabilitation, and re-integration into the workplace,” it says.

As mentioned earlier, the kinds of drug tests vary, and there are five main categories that are typically tested for. But some additional categories of drugs may include barbiturates, Benzodiazepines, ethanol (alcohol), hydrocodone, MDMA, methadone, methaqualone, or propoxyphene. Random tests are the most effective for deterring illicit drug use. Employers conduct random tests using an unpredictable selection process.

Employers may conduct drug tests during the following circumstances:

  • Pre-employment tests
  • Annual physical tests
  • For-cause and reasonable suspicion tests
  • Post-accident tests
  • Post-treatment tests

Ensuring the accuracy of drug-testing results is critical, and employers are advised to use an HHS-certified laboratory to test the specimens and a Medical Review Officer (MRO) to interpret the test results. MROs are licensed physicians who receive laboratory results and have knowledge of substance use disorders and federal drug-testing regulations. MROs are trained to interpret and evaluate test results together with the employee’s medical history and other relevant information. A negative test result does not indicate that an employee has never used alcohol or illicit drugs, nor is it a guarantee against future use. Depending on the workplace and the circumstances, employees who test positive may be referred to EAPs, into treatment, or for possible disciplinary action depending on the severity.

Next up in this series: Federal rules on reasonable suspicion testing.