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Clean and sober Featured

7:00pm EDT February 27, 2001

Each year, $100 billion is lost in terms of reduced productivity, increased safety risks, theft and accidents as a result of drug and alcohol abuse.

While drug tests might be the norm at some companies, 26 percent of manufacturing and 14 percent of nonmanufacturing companies in Northeast Ohio report drug testing would cause them to lose a substantial part of their work force.

Faced with a labor crunch, company owners are caught in the middle. They don't want an employee with a substance abuse problem at the very least, hurting productivity, or at worst, injuring themselves or another worker. But they still might want to retain a valuable employee despite his or her personal problems.

More often than not, an employer will work with an employee to help him or her get better, says Paul Taller, an employee assistance professional at the Center for Families & Children.

"Employees aren't easy to replace," Taller says. "It can take $10,000 to replace an employee by the time you go through the loss of productivity with the person being off, the time it takes to hire a person in, and the work it takes to bring the person in. It's much more cost effective if you have an employee that you can rehabilitate rather than getting rid of that person and trying to find somebody better."

The Center for Families & Children contracts with 75 companies in Northeast Ohio for rehabilitation and services for employees and their families. In most cases, the employee goes to the center seeking help. About 10 percent of the time, employers provide referrals directly.

Once employees enroll, the center's psychologists and counselors evaluate them to find the causes of the problem and what methods they can use to get them on the road to recovery. Counselors create an employee assistance program, which may include inpatient or outpatient phases, during which the employee meets with physicians and counselors to combat withdrawal symptoms and resolve personal problems that may be causing chemical dependency.

"I would say that there's a greater chance of a successful outcome with employee assistance programs," Taller says. "If the person tries to do it on their own, they tend to lose motivation because there's no encouragement to help them to get back on track. That's why employers do contract with the agency, because they are effective."

Develop a policy

Companies need to clearly state their substance abuse policy in the employee contract.

Review all previously written policies, agreements and laws related to workplace substance abuse issues, and review the company's insurance policy to determine the coverage offered for substance abuse treatment

Define the company's standards regarding the use, transfer or sale of illicit drugs or alcohol on company premises or company time. Include standards about the improper use of prescription medication, intoxication from drugs or alcohol while on company premises and the off-hours use of alcohol or drugs to the extent that it affects health and work performance.

Spell out the methods of detecting substance abuse and include enforcement procedures, specifying which offenses will lead to immediate dismissal, suspension, referral to treatment and so forth. Avoid liability by sticking to behavioral observations (see sidebar) and do not make accusations.

Call cabs or give rides to employees sent home for on-the-job intoxication; otherwise, the employer could be held liable for any accident caused by the intoxicated employee.

Test

Testing not only provides peace of mind for the employer, it also boosts the bottom line. Some private insurance companies offer significant discounts on premiums to company owners who test, thanks to the reduced threat of accidents, workplace violence and theft.

In the public sector, the Ohio State Bureau of Workers' Compensation reduces premiums to state-funded companies and organizations that drug test.

The benefits of testing are clear, so how do you get started? Most private companies call a private testing clinic, which coordinates collection, testing and reporting duties, leaving the employer only with the decision of what to do if a test comes back positive.

Concentra Medical Services, a 210-clinic nationwide drug testing chain, has four clinics in Northeast Ohio. The company sends urine, hair or saliva samples to be screened at a testing laboratory and receives results usually in about 24 hours.

While urine testing has been the method of choice since screening began, hair testing will be the wave of the future, says Dr. Steve Sanford, Concentra's Northeast Ohio area medical director.

"Hair testing detects drug use over a longer period of time," Sanford says. "You can detect drug use two, three, even four months back, depending on how long the hair is. Urine screening will detect only recent drug use, three to five days." How to reach: Center For Families and Children, (216) 241-6400; Concentra Medical Centers, (216) 426-9020