Drug and Alcohol Testing in the Construction Industry

The construction industry is generally composed of three sectors, namely building construction, industrial construction and infrastructure. Building Construction is further subdivided into residential and non-residential sectors. Industrial construction includes mills and manufacturing plants, refineries and power generation. Infrastructure or heavy engineering includes dams, roads/highways, bridges, large public works, water/waste water and utility distribution.

The construction industry is a major contributor to the U.S. economy. There are close to 8-million individuals working in the construction industry, employed by over 650,000 employers. A study conducted by Professor Stephen Fuller of George Mason University for AGC (The Associated General Contractors of America) found that every $1 billion non-residential construction spending alone creates or sustains 28,500 jobs and adds $3.4 billion and $1.1 billion to GDP and to personal earnings respectively.

The United States is one of the largest construction industry markets in the world, worth over $1.162 trillion. In 2015, private construction spending reached an estimated $824 billion and new construction is projected to reach $1.4 trillion by 2020.

Substance Abuse in the Construction Industry

The very nature of construction work, which is already inherently dangerous, stressful and physically demanding, makes the people working in it all the more vulnerable to the potential hazards introduced by employee substance abuse. The wide range of activities and tasks performed in a single construction site expose workers to harm from the actions of others and/or from one’s own unsafe behavior.

Each person working in a construction site depends on the level of skill, competence and fitness for duty of those working around him. They have to rely on one another to safely do their jobs in order to protect themselves and their fellow workers from accidents.

See Also: The Impact of Drug Abuse in the Construction Industry

An individual worker who reports for work while alcohol or drug-impaired poses a significant risk to himself and to others at the work site. Unfortunately substance abuse is prevalent in the construction industry. Back in 1988, the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) published a survey where 28.1% of construction workers admitted to using drugs. While there have been promising declines in the numbers over the past 3 decades since the Drug Free Workplace Act of 1988, substance abuse in the workplace is a long way from being a thing of the past. See Figure 1 below.

  SAMHSA Substance Abuse Rates by Industry

Figure 1 – Past-year Substance Use Disorder by Industry (Full-time employees aged 18-64)

Source: https://www.samhsa.gov/data/sites/default/files/report_1959/ShortReport-1959.html

It is worth mentioning that however promising the declining numbers seem, they may not be an accurate representation of the total picture because many respondents were reluctant to admit to using illegal drugs, even though they were told that the surveys were confidential.

Widespread substance abuse is a major contributing factor to the high rate of personal injuries and property damage within the construction industry. Many companies that have implemented 100% drug testing in the workplace say that initial drug test results yield 25-35% positives. Even if employees are aware of the drug testing schedule, 3-5% of them would still test positive for drug use. Research also indicate that the highest illicit drug use come from the 17 to 30-year-old age group, which makes up the majority of workers in the construction industry.

Drug & Alcohol Testing in the Construction Industry

The Drug Free Workplace Act of 1988 gives employers the right to implement workplace drug testing policies but does not require them to do so. Nevertheless, construction industry employers, both private and government contractors have recognized the benefits of drug testing in the workplace. In 2014, the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence Inc. (NCADD) said that the monetary cost to employers of drug abuse amounts to $81 billion annually.

Drug and alcohol use among employees indeed is an expensive problem for business and industry. Some 38-50% of workers’ compensation claims, 35% of absences, 35% of fatal & non-fatal injuries and 40% of workplace thefts are drug abuse-related.   Even employees who do not use drugs or alcohol but have family members who do also suffer from some of the same issues at their own jobs. These issues include:

  • Absenteeism/extra sick leave/tardiness
  • Lost productivity/poor job performance
  • Accidents/personal injuries
  • Premature deaths
  • Damage to property and theft
  • Low employee morale
  • Higher health care costs
  • Legal liabilities
  • Workers’ compensation

Many of these problems are avoided by implementing strict drug testing policies and performing any of the following drug tests as applicable:

  • Pre-employment drug test
  • Random drug testing
  • Reasonable suspicion drug test
  • Post accident drug testing
  • Return-to-Duty drug test
  • Follow-up drug test

Additionally, companies with well-implemented alcohol and drug testing effectively deter employees from actually drinking on the job or reporting for work while under the influence, knowing they may get tested at random or for reasonable suspicion.

Drug Test Methods

  • Urine drug testing is the most technologically developed drug testing method. As a result, it is also the most popular. Additionally, most drugs and their metabolites have a long window of detection in urine (see Table 1 below for approximate drug detection times).

Many urine drug test cups and urine drug test dip cards are ideal for on-site job testing and can be performed by designated employees even without any specialized training. These test kits provide quick and accurate results. Standard panels can detect Amphetamines, Methamphetamine, Benzodiazepines, Cocaine, Marijuana, Methadone and Opioids.

  • Saliva testing has steadily climbed in popularity over the last decade owing to its affordability and ease of use. Many saliva drug tests are readily available from drugstores, pharmacies and many online suppliers. They are ideal for random on-the-job tests or post-accident tests because they are quick and convenient to use.
  • Hair drug testing is another drug test method that is ideal for establishing long-term substance use. A standard 1.5-inch sample will show a 90-day drug use profile for a patient. Many employers use the hair test when hiring for key positions that require insight as to a job candidate’s past behavior.

TABLE 1:  Approximate Drug Detection Times

SubstanceUrineSaliva Hair
Amphetamine2-4 days1-3 days7-90 days
Methamphetamine3-5 days1-3 days7-90 days
Cocaine2-4 days1-3 days7-90 days
THC15-30 days6-12 hours7-90 days
Opiates2-4 days1-3 days7-90 days
Morphine2-4 days7-90 days
PCP7-14 days1-3 days7-90 days
Barbiturates4-7 days
Benzodiazepines3-7 days
Methadone3-5 days
Propoxyphene1-2 days
Ecstasy (MDMA)1-3 days
Tricyclic Antidepressants7-10 days
Hydrocodone2-4 days
Hydromorphone2-4 days
Oxycodone2-4 days
Oxymorphone2-4 days

The drug detection times shown are approximate values and must be interpreted depending on several factors like the variability of the samples, drug metabolism and half-life, the patient’s physical condition at the time the samples were taken like his/her food and fluid intake, and the method and frequency of ingestion.

Substance Abuse Statistics in the Construction Industry

  • Over 81% of the population believe that construction workers should be tested for drugs.
  • The construction industry is 2nd only to the hotel & food services industry in its drug and alcohol use.
  • Workers with alcohol problems are 2.7 times more prone to injury-related absences than workers who do not have drinking problems.
  • 16% of emergency room visits are work-related injuries.
  • 17% of fatal work injuries in 2013 were in the construction industry according to the US Department of Labor Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).
  • According to the Cornell University study An Evaluation of Drug Testing in the Workplace – A Study of the Construction Industry, workplace injuries for companies that implemented drug testing dropped by 51% within 2 years
  • The same Cornell University study found that workers’ compensation claims were reduced by 11.41% upon implementing drug testing


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