Employer Drug Test: Complete Guide for Employers


An employer who has enrolled in the Federal Workplace Program can drug test all civilian employees in their executive branches. But only TDP ( Testing Designated Positions) can undergo random drug testing during employment.

In the case of private employment, the employer can conduct pre-employment, post-accident, and workplace drug tests without deteriorating the privacy and fundamental rights of the individual. DOT provides a set of guidelines for those employers who hire for safety-sensitive positions.

Table of Contents:

Drug abuse is a global phenomenon.  Some countries have stringent laws like the death penalty to prevent drug abuse.  It is mandatory in the U.S. to conduct drug tests in several departments and agencies befitting the purpose.

Main Reasons for Drug Abuse/Addiction

  • Legality:  Alcohol and nicotine are legal and slackly regulated to prevent addiction.  People tend to abuse them by self-medicating for stress, anxiety, trauma, etc.
  • Prescribed Medication:  Some people think prescription drugs are safe to consume without consequences, thereby taking them frequently for symptom relief.  Prescription drugs like opiates are highly addictive in nature.
  • Depression:  People struggling with depression do not undergo proper treatment or diagnosis.  They try to handle their depressive symptoms by self-medicating with Nicotine, Alcohol, Marijuana, Cocaine, and various other mind-altering substances.
  • Fitting in/Peer Pressure:  Peer pressure causes people to do things they would not like but had to do to either impress people or try to feel valued.
  • To Feel Good:  Many people start to abuse drugs and alcohol just to feel better than they do. Unfortunately, using drugs or alcohol to feel better, whether stressed, anxious, or enhancing their fun, is a gateway to severe addiction.
  • Availability:  Nicotine, Alcohol, and Prescription drugs can be easily acquired because they are readily available.
  • Experimenting:  Young adults and teenagers tend to experiment with mind-altering substances like Cocaine and Alcohol.  Drugs like Ecstasy, Heroin, and Meth are so addictive that the person may begin to abuse, eventually leading to addiction.
  • Self-Medicating:  Self-medicating is one of the reasons people abuse drugs and alcohol.  People under stress, anxiety, recurring pain, severe depression, trauma, loneliness, undiagnosed mental illnesses, etc., would self-medicate with mind-altering substances to relieve symptoms and pain.

What are The Most Commonly Abused Drugs?

  • Opioids
  • Marijuana
  • Cocaine
  • Ecstasy
  • Heroin
  • Methamphetamine

The United States government had scheduled nearly 29 drugs under the Controlled Substance Act to prevent drug abuse, but the menace of illegal drug trade continues to thrive across various states in the U.S.

Why do People Go for Drugs?

Drug intake and drug abuse are prevalent among people due to external and internal factors. They could not psychologically or physically tolerate the situation that might move them into drug abuse and later addiction.

Abuse of drugs influences the quality of health and productivity.  Drug addicts might be involved in home conflicts, accidents on roads and factories, and sports frauds.  The Substance Abuse Authorities recommend a drug test if they suspect drug abuse.  The drug tests are common in places like

  • Workplace (Pre-Employment and Random Screening)
  • Police
  • Army
  • Network Rail
  • Court
  • Social Services
  • Sports Authorities
  • Transport Department

Drug Test Vs. Drug Screening

Though drug testing and drug screening are synonymous, there lies a vast difference between them.  The procedures are different, but the aim is to determine the drug samples collected from the individual.

The main differences are given below

Drug Test

Drug Screening

Much more accurate

Less accurate

Slightly Expensive (Around 200$)

Cost around 10$

Takes a generous amount of time (1 to 7 days)

Takes minutes

Only labs can conduct the drug test

It can be done anywhere

Test kits are not available in the pharmacy

Test kits are available in drug stores

The confirmatory test is not required

The confirmatory test is needed in Labs

Why should Companies opt for the Periodical Drug Test?

Companies in the U.S. incur huge losses each year due to employees’ drug abuse.  Drug abuse among the employees leads to

  • Absenteeism
  • Late reporting
  • Violent behaviors at workplaces
  • Compensation claims
  • Low productivity
  • Getting fired or quit within a few months of employment

According to the U.S Department of Justice, nearly 40% of employee theft and 50% of accidents at the workplace happen due to drug abuse. As per the report released by trusted sources, around 74% of all current illegal drug abusers are employed, and they cause about 40% of all industrial fatalities.

Benefits of Drug Test for Employers

75% of fortune 500 companies conduct drug tests and drug screening of their pre-employment candidates and employees periodically.  The U.S. government encourages employers who have entered into the Workplace program by providing discounts on their workers’ compensation insurance premiums.

Advantages of Drug Tests for Employers include

  • Improves employees morale, performance, and productivity
  • Considerable reduction in health care costs
  • Promoting social well-being
  • Prevention of accidents, downtime, thefts, and crimes
  • Compliance with state or federal rules
  • Providing safe workplace
  • Identify and refer employees with drug and alcohol problems

Use the following calculator to assess the level of drug abuse at your workplace


When is the drug test administered?

Different government departments, agencies, and companies in the US follow different protocols to drug test their employees. However, there are some common instances in which drug test is administered by most employers.

The Department of Transportation (DOT) has mandated drug tests for safety-sensitive positions that include truck operation, pipelines, railroad, aviation, maritime and safety-centric occupations.

Pre-Employment Drug Test:  After getting a conditional offer letter, employees are asked to undergo a mandatory drug test.  Employees are absorbed into the job if they test negative on the drug test.  Every state has its own set of laws that regulates pre-employment drug testing.  Some states have laws that protect certain personal health information, thus limiting the company’s access to the information.

Post-Accident Drug Test:  This test is conducted after the occurrence of an accident in a workplace.  The employee involved in the accident is removed from the scene for medical attention.  The possible consequences are damage to life, property, and citation by the police.  The employer who has framed the drug test guidelines for such incidents should plan to conduct the drug test within a reasonable timeframe, as the effect of the alcohol and drug remains in the human system from 2 to 8 hours. Therefore, an examination within 2 hours is always better.

Return-To-Work Testing:  This type of drug test is administered to employees who were tested positive or were absent from work for a long time.  As per Federal guidelines, employees who return to work can be subjected to the drug test in the following circumstances:

  • Having tested positive
  • Involved in the violation of the drug rule or specific alcohol rule

Before taking the return-to-work drug test, a follow-up test is conducted. The Substances Abuse Professional (SAP) should examine the employee that the latter had undergone treatment as per the procedures.

Random Drug Testing:  The employees for the test are selected randomly by a lottery-like system, sometimes computer-generated random numbers (Employees Identification or Social Security number).  This system ensures unbiased procedure. Moreover, it is the most effective deterrence against drug abuse by employees.

Periodical Drug Testing:  It is a scheduled drug test done on employees currently working with the company.  Some employers make it a part of an annual physical test.  The schedule may be yearly, half-yearly, or quarterly.  The only drawback of the test is it gives enough time for the employees to get rid of the effects of the drug before the scheduled drug test.

Drug Testing Under Reasonable Suspicion:  This testing is carried out based on suspicious behavior or actions of an employee for a reasonable length of time at the workplace.  The supervisor should have solid evidence-based observations before claiming the drug test as it involves the employee’s dignity.  The employer should lay down a comprehensive type of behavior that warrants drug or alcohol testing.  This type of testing is also termed “probable cause” or “for cause” testing.

Pros and Cons of Workplace Drug Testing


  • The employer’s primary responsibility is to keep the workplace safe, secure, and healthy, or else the employer may find themselves in a difficult situation if something goes wrong in the workplace. Therefore, it’s also obligatory for an employer to check if all the preventive measures are updated.
  • Periodical and scheduled drug tests ensure near-total compliance on the part of the employees, thus enhancing productivity and efficiency at the workplace. This lifts the spirits of the employees and encourages them to double up their efforts.
  • Companies that are serious about their business tend to have a highly effective drug screening and testing policy. In addition, these companies hold a series of seminars, counseling, and workshops for the employees irrespective of their liking or disliking of drugs, thus keeping the employees safe, healthy and happy.
  • It ensures a considerable reduction in the cost of hiring and training the new employees, besides enormous time spent in hiring and training the new employees.
  • Employees tend to work efficiently without a reasonable absence from work. This ensures uninterrupted productivity.
  • It creates a safe and healthy environment at the workplace and ensures the safety and security of all employees.  Employees will have no reasons for excuses.
  • It eliminates accidents, damage, fatalities in workplaces, especially heavy machinery, hazardous chemicals, and crude oil refineries.
  • Employer turns a good Samaritan when referring a drug-addicted employee to the EAP (employee assistance program).  EAP, in turn, refers the concerned employee to a certified rehabilitation center.  This center turns the drug-addicted employee into a healthy and happy individual that is synonymous with offering an employee a new lease on life.
  • Employees who abuse the drug despite all the preventive measures, like periodic drug testing and rehabilitation, adopted by the employer cannot claim compensation in accident or injury, as the employer is not liable to pay anything.
  • Absenteeism, poor performance, and low productivity are the signs of employees who are drug users. Periodical drug testing or drug screening helps the employer to detect such employees and retain efficient employees. No employer would compromise on productivity and profits.
  • Crimes like shooting, stabbing, and violence can be significantly eliminated at workplaces if drug tests are carried out quite often.
  • Random drug testing instills a sense of discipline among the employees at the workplace and refrains them from using drugs successively, leading to well-being and a healthy lifestyle.


  • Employees might go for unfair dismissal suits on account of their failing the drug test.  Employees often file claims arguing they have been terminated wrongfully and without any valid reason.  The company will still lose money even if the plaintiff loses the case.  Lawsuits of any sort are costly and take away time and focus from the staff involved in the case.
  • The cost of running a drug-testing program is expensive. However, being a preventive measure, most employers feel this is an extra burden.
  • Mild traces of drugs like Cannabinoids, if found during the drug screening, disqualifies even a potential employee from being hired. Still, some state laws have permitted the use of medical marijuana out of working hours.
  • Pre-hiring drug tests or drug screening is a mandatory routine in the US.  Drug test results reveal just the presence or absence of a drug and not the time-span of an individual who has been under the drug influence.

Types of Drug Tests

  • Hair testing
  • Oral testing
  • Urine testing
  • Breath testing

Hair Testing: Human hair is a perfect recorder of drug usage over an extended period, normally three months (90 days).  The test also reveals

  • When was the drug used?
  • How long has the drug been used?
  • When was the drug discarded?

A hair drug test identifies the following drugs

  • Cocaine
  • Amphetamines and Methamphetamines
  • PCP
  • Marijuana
  • Opioids
  • Phencyclidine

Oral Testing:  In this test, saliva is taken from inside a person’s mouth, specifically from the region of the buccal cavity.  Oral testing is also known as mouth swab testing or fluid testing.  It is the best alternative to a urine drug test, and it is preferred among employers for the following reasons.

  • Almost all the drugs take time to metabolize and manifest in the human system. Therefore, the saliva can test the most recently used drug (the time span can be a few minutes to two days).
  • It is a tamper-proof test.
  • Sample can be collected on-site.  This eliminates the possibility of cheating.
  • It is cost-effective.
  • Quick and efficient administration of the test.
  • Suitable for a range of drug testing.

Urine Testing:  A urine drug test is done under a specific protocol.  Urine drug test, commonly known as UDS and is a painless procedure. It can trace the drug presence even if the effects of some illegal drugs have worn off.

The person who tests positive is advised to undergo treatment under the supervision of Substance Abuse Professionals.   A urine drug test is performed in steps:

  • On-site screening test is carried out immediately after obtaining the specimen that gives results in minutes.
  • Based on reasonable suspicion, the sample is sent to SAMHSA-certified laboratories for a confirmatory test.

Breath Testing:  Alcohol tests are limited to testing the level of impairment or intoxication caused due to the consumption of alcohol.  This drug test doesn’t reveal the history of alcohol consumption in the past.  Breath analyzers are the most common form of alcohol test at the workplace.  A person in question blows air into the breathalyzer for alcohol detection.  The level of intoxication is determined by reading the numbers displayed by the analyzer.  Employees whose measurements range between 0.02 to 0.039 on breath analyzers are removed from sensitive operations sites or types of machinery.

Why is Urine Drug Test popular for Employer Drug Testing?

Urine drug tests are famous for the following reasons:

  • Can be done instantly onsite or at home setting.
  • Serves the purposes like the pre-employment test, return-to-work test, random test, scheduled test.
  • Urine test cups are available in varying panel configurations to test up to 16 or sometimes 20 drugs simultaneously, and the drug testing time lasts a few minutes.
  • Some companies offer advanced features like detecting the combination of drugs.
  • This test form is the most convenient tool for medical service professionals, employers, and compliance enforcement agents.
  • Trusted Employer Urine drug test kits are
  1. CLIA waived
  2. FDA Cleared
  3. DOT Approved.

How long does urine drug testing take?

It takes less than 5 minutes to get the drug test results if you use high-quality urine drug testing cups.

What drugs can a urine test detect?

A urine drug test can detect almost all the drug metabolites derived from alcohol, prescribed medicines, and synthetic drugs. In addition, a urine drug test can reveal the usage of the following drugs, besides common drugs.

  • Benzodiazepines
  • Barbiturates
  • Amphetamine
  • Buprenorphine
  • Methadone
  • Oxycodone
  • Tricyclic Antidepressant
  • Phencyclidine
  • Propoxyphene
  • Methamphetamine
  • Bath Salts (Stimulant)
  • High Potency Opioids
  • Ketamine
  • Meperidine
  • Dextromethorphan
  • Carisoprodol
  • Cannabinoids (Synthetic)

This test also detects some common adulterants like pH number, SG Value, Color, Odor, Glucose, Nitrite, Oxidants, Creatinine, etc., (commonly required by medical professionals for diagnostic purposes).

What are the steps in a Urine drug test?

The test is done in three steps.

  1. Collect 30 mL of urine sample in a urine test cup.
  2. Wait for five minutes (wait time should not go above 5 minutes as a result may be inaccurate).
  3. Interpret lines to know the result (positive or negative).

You may watch this video that explains the result reading procedure


Which drug panel should I choose as an Employer?

Employers, individuals, and agencies who want to undergo urine drug tests can choose the urine drug testing panels as per their specific requirements like pre-employment test, random test, post-accident test, return-to-duty test, etc.  Each panel tests a particular set of drugs and their metabolites, the most common being the 5-panel drug test.

5-Panel Drug Test serves the purpose of most of the employer’s requirements and detects the following drugs:

  • Opioids/Opiates (oxycodone, oxymorphone, heroin, codeine, morphine, 6-MAM, hydrocodone)
  • AMP (methamphetamine, MDA, MDMA, D-amphetamine)
  • PCP
  • COC
  • MMJ (cannabinoids)

As the panel digit increases, more and more drugs and their metabolites are included in the test.

6-Panel Drug Test detects

  • THC (tetrahydrocannabinol).
  • COC
  • Opiates
  • AMP
  • PCP (phencyclidine)
  • Ecstasy (3,4-Methylenedioxy-N-ethylamphetamine)

Some of these drugs cause fatigue and dizziness. This test is common in workplaces where heavy types of machinery are operated.

7-Panel Drug Test detects

  • Opiates
  • MMJ
  • PCP
  • Barbiturates
  • COC
  • AMP
  • Benzodiazepines

8-Panel Drug Test detects

  • Opiates
  • MMJ
  • PCP
  • Barbiturates
  • COC
  • AMP & MAMP
  • Benzodiazepines

9-Panel Drug Test detects

  • Opiates
  • MMJ
  • PCP
  • Barbiturates
  • COC
  • AMP
  • Methadone
  • MAMP
  • Benzodiazepines

10-Panel Drug Test detects

  • Opiates
  • MMJ
  • PCP
  • Barbiturates
  • COC
  • AMP
  • Methadone
  • Methaqualone
  • Propoxyphene
  • Benzodiazepines

11-Panel Drug Test detects

  • Opiates
  • Oxycodone
  • AMP
  • Barbiturates
  • Benzodiazepines
  • Buprenorphine
  • COC
  • MAMP
  • Methadone
  • PCP
  • THC

12-Panel Drug Test:  This is an exhaustive and the most comprehensive drug test that includes additional opiates besides abused prescription drugs.  This test detects

  • MMJ
  • Opiates
  • PCP
  • COC
  • AMP
  • Benzodiazepines
  • Barbiturates
  • Methadone
  • Methaqualone
  • Propoxyphene
  • Ecstasy
  • Oxycodone

Standardized Industry-Centric Drug Tests

  • Companies, agencies, and organizations who want to have a strict drug-free workplace policy should go for the 12-panel test for all the employees.
  • Industries that employ heavy machinery and operate chemical plants and processes should go for 10-panel or 12-panel as per the current requirement.  Construction industries should follow these norms.
  • Some states have mandated a 5-panel drug test for civil servants, and some have gone to the extent of conducting a 10-panel test for the civil servants.
  • Mobile health agencies recommend the 8-panel test for home health aides.

Drug test for Wealthy and White-Collar Workers

Corporate houses mainly recruit white-collar and wealthy workers.  They go for the designer drug test to suit their work culture.  Employees in the corporate environment might use a combination of drugs to increase focus and attention span.

Fast-changing corporate culture and expanding legislation on Marijuana and other factors have limited the drug test in corporate houses to 4 or 5-panel tests, but this excludes THC.

Final words

Employers should be well aware of the features, implications, benefits, and disadvantages of implementing drug testing policies in their respective workplaces.  It is prudent for employees and employers to know their rights, roles, and responsibilities.

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