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As developer of the world’s first onsite oral fluid-based drug test, Avitar Onsite Diagnostics provides drug-free workplace solutions based on oral fluid technology. Avitar owns an ISO-certified and FDA-registered manufacturing facility along the Massachusetts biotechnology corridor. Peter Cholakis, Avitar’s Vice President of Marketing, leads the company’s communications programs, which assist corporations in establishing drug-free work environments. In this interview, Cholakis describes how employee drug testing programs can improve occupational safety and health in the United States.

Avitar’s oral fluid diagnostic product, ORALscreen, is widely used in employee drug testing programs, and according to Peter Cholakis, the benefits of this type of drug test outweigh those of other drug testing methods. “Traditional urine-based drug screening suffers from the prevalent practices of specimen substitution and adulteration. Also, employers and employees alike view urine testing as degrading and generally distasteful, and most urine samples are analyzed at a lab, which is an expensive and inefficient process. Oral fluid-based testing cannot be ‘cheated’ because specimen collection is directly observed, is a socially acceptable practice and enables employers to implement random testing, which experts consider the most effective method of deterring on-the-job drug abuse,” says Cholakis.

At the national level, random drug testing such as this can significantly impact occupational safety and health by reducing injuries, accidents and fatalities. Notes Cholakis, “Properly implemented drug testing programs that use random, oral fluid-based testing, in addition to educational and associated employee assistance programs, can reduce on-the-job accidents by up to 50% or more. Further benefits may include lower employee turnovers rates and absenteeism as well as reduced inventory shrinkage and workplace violence.”

“The U.S. consumes over 60% of the world’s illicit drug production,” he adds. “Each year, the costs to U.S. employers exceed $140 billion, as 77% of all drug abusers are employed, and eight to ten percent of workers in any company abuse drugs. On average, each drug abuser costs a corporation $10,000 per year.”

Given these statistics, it is no surprise that the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) actively and openly supports drug testing in the workplace. In fact, Cholakis says that currently OSHA is working with the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) to manage the Drug-Free Workplace Alliance, “a cooperative agreement that focuses on improving workplace safety and health in the construction industry through substance abuse prevention and intervention.”

Most state governments support drug testing and have issued either voluntary or legislative guidelines in support of drug-free workplace programs. Cholakis indicates that many states offer workers’ compensation discounts if companies have active drug testing programs, and most will disallow unemployment benefits to those terminated for drug abuse. However, since some states have passed legislation that affects how and when an organization can test for drugs, Cholakis advises that companies research their local state laws before instituting a drug testing program.

He also points out that it will probably be some time before employee drug testing programs within government agencies are further regulated. For example, the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) requires urine-based drug screening, but, says Cholakis, this screening “relies on a process that is approximately 20 years old. This testing process is subject to adulteration and substitution, and it does not include screening for prescription painkillers.”

“While the DOT and related agencies are considering expanding their practices to include alternative testing (oral fluid and hair), this process will likely take years due to the general nature of government and lobbying on the part of urine testing providers. DOT testing accounts for only about two percent of all testing done in the U.S. Additionally, it should be noted that the latest National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) Causal Study for Large Truck Crashes cited driver error as the number one factor, with prescription painkillers as the number one associated variable,” he continues.

Drug abusers can negatively impact employee morale and corporate viability as well, which makes the need for drug testing among U.S. employees great. Cholakis indicates that “drug abuse in the U.S. is worse than ever. The use of prescription painkillers and methamphetamine is becoming more widespread than marijuana in our school systems and in the workplace, and the results are insidious.” However, based on Avitar’s experience with its customers, a successful, company-wide, random drug-testing program can improve annual productivity rates while lowering medical and workers’ compensation costs.

“One of our customers within the construction sector tested all of its workers after providing a 90-day notification that it was about to do so. Yet, 30% of the workforce tested positive and was terminated. But within six weeks, the company was more productive—with 30% less workers. This is not a unique experience in industry,” explains Cholakis.

Safety, health and environmental (SH&E) professionals who work with Avitar have been receptive to the idea of drug testing in the workplace because, says Cholakis, they understand “the need to proactively address drug abuse in the workplace through a combination of drug testing, education and support programs because they are on the front lines, and they deal with day-to-day accidents, workplace violence and related issues. Many of our clients have been capable of educating senior management on the strategic importance of a drug-free workplace and the need for the company to play an active role in developing, implementing and monitoring the success of drug-free workplace initiatives. Sometimes they must rely upon human resources personnel to implement the drug testing programs, as there are no internal structures such as corporate wellness departments. In this instance, it is critical that human resources understand the criticality of a comprehensive drug-free workplace program.”

According to Cholakis, companies that implement comprehensive, oral fluid-based, company-wide, random drug testing programs can generally expect the following:

  • Up to 50% fewer reportable accidents (which translates into lower workers comp premium costs)
  • 30% less employee turnover
  • Lower health benefit utilization rates
  • Up to a 40% reduction in inventory shrinkage
  • Fewer incidents of workplace violence

But since only two percent of all drug testing is federally regulated and federal programs are between 20 and 30 years old, he suggests that employers avoid basing their drug-free workplace polices on these programs and their outdated technologies, such as urine testing, and begin testing for drugs like Oxycontin ®, Percoset® and Vicodin ®, which are widely used among U.S. employees. He also believes that every company can benefit from a tailored and comprehensive drug-free workplace program that includes:

  • Corporate-wide buy-in.
  • Goals, objectives and metrics.
  • Drug policy development and review with appropriate consideration for federal, state and local regulations.
  • A drug and testing program inclusive of all testing modes (pre-employment, random, reasonable suspicion, post-accident, return-to-duty).
  • GC/MS confirmatory testing.
  • MRO services.
  • Education and training.
  • EAP/SAP programs.
  • Links to business goals and reports on quantitative metrics.

For Cholakis, Avitar’s greatest achievement has been “redefining how organizations can implement a truly successful drug-free workplace program through oral-based random drug testing and providing an approach that truly deters drug abuse in the workplace.”

So what can be done to help lower the incidence of drug abuse among employees? Cholakis recommends that employers invest in an oral-based random drug testing program in conjunction with corporate-wide education and communications programs because, he emphasizes, “The goal is prevention and employee wellness, not punishment.”