Workplace Alcohol Testing Methods

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Published on Mar 6th, 2017

This is a question best deliberated upon during the drafting of your organization’s Drug-Free Workplace Policy. It is at this stage when you decide whether or not it is worth doing, depending on your corporate goals and the issues you expect to face as a result of doing the tests. These issues will most likely include workplace safety, employee performance and overall cost, among others.

Is Alcohol Testing Legal in Your State?

While the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) has imposed certain limitations on workplace alcohol testing, it most definitely is legal. The federal government itself says that 58 million Americans (adults) admit to binge drinking or consuming 5 or more drinks in a single occasion in the preceding 30 days. An alarming 75% of all these adults are employed.

Just imagine how these individuals will be like in the workplace if they are walking around either intoxicated or nursing a nasty hangover. That piece of statistic alone should be sufficient to convince any employer of the wisdom behind doing alcohol testing in the workplace.

Over the past 3 decades, the alcohol testing industry has come up with some serious technological innovations, enabling quicker and more accurate legally-defensible results at much lower costs to employers. The 4 primary matrices for alcohol testing are breath, urine, saliva and blood - each with its own advantages.

Saliva Alcohol Testing

Testing for alcohol using oral fluids or saliva is a popular method, albeit “screen-only” in the non-regulated workplace setting. For many workplace situations, not only do employers find this sufficient for their purposes, it is also the most cost effective. Disposable oral fluid rapid test kits are less expensive than other alcohol testing methods.

As with all other test methods, the “timing” of your test is a critical consideration when testing for alcohol with oral fluids. You probably would not be putting a provision for alcohol testing during pre-employment screening as job applicants are not likely to show up drunk for a job interview, but will you be doing tests just prior to duty for certain positions; or will you be doing them randomly; or only upon reasonable suspicion, etc? You surely would want it done post-accident. These are just some of the considerations when deciding to use saliva testing for alcohol detection in the workplace.

It is important to remember that a saliva test for alcohol will not produce an evidentiary result and all positive screens should go through a confirmation test by blood or an evidentiary breath test (EBT), but ONLY if your state laws permit or if required by federal law. Have your legal adviser confirm this for you before putting it in your drug-free workplace policy.

Breath Alcohol Testing

Most employers favor breath testing to screen for alcohol in the workplace. There are 2 types of tests under this category; evidentiary breath testing (EBT) and single-use test devices. You may choose either test type for your organization as both are permitted for every state for workplace testing and they are also approved under DOT regulations.

EBTs are quite accessible and are used widely by hospitals, clinics and even occupational health centers. However, EBTs need regular calibration in order to stay accurate and should therefore be operated by trained personnel only.

Single-use, disposable breath test devices on the other hand provide immediate results and are generally less expensive than EBTs. This may be an important consideration for many organizations. The downside will be the fact that single-use devices should still be confirmed by an EBT or a blood test but again this depends on your needs as an organization.

Blood Alcohol Testing

The human blood is considered by many both inside and outside of the industry as the “gold standard” for detecting substances in the body. Be that as it may, it is also the most invasive and time-consuming testing method. Additionally, you would need to have a trained professional (phlebotomist, nurse, doctor, laboratory technician etc) to draw the blood sample. Needless to say, it also costs more than other testing methods.

In short, alcohol testing with blood is not usually used in a workplace setting.

Having considered all that, you do not want to completely exclude blood testing as an option for your organization. You may find that there are post-accident situations in the workplace where the affected employee is unable to do a breath test or provide oral fluids, much less collect urine specimen. Just make sure you consult with your legal adviser regarding your state laws and whether they allow blood testing of employees for drugs or alcohol.

Urine Alcohol Testing

Urine testing is the most used method for detecting drugs, and some employers along with treatment providers will also test for alcohol using the same specimen, provided the timelines fall within the pre-defined detection periods.

Testing with urine is not generally regarded as reliable for alcohol detection because fermentation causes glucose to be present in the urine, resulting to false positives. False positive results happen when levels appear higher than they really are. On the other hand, ethanol disappears from the system beyond 8-12 hours and a test at this time or a little beyond will likely come back negative. So if an employee has gone binge drinking the previous night, reports for work severely hung-over and causes some “incident” on-the-job, a regular urine test may NOT be your best bet at proving that an employee violated your drug-free workplace policy.

Alcohol EtG/EtS Testing

All of the previously discussed methods of testing for alcohol have one thing in common; they are all somewhat limited by what may be considered a short window of detection. This is what differentiates EtG/EtS alcohol testing from the rest. It offers a much longer period within which alcohol may be detected. As a result EtG testing is growing in popularity within criminal justice communities, the substance abuse treatment industry and workplace settings.

Ethyl Glucuronide is a direct metabolite of ethanol. It is a stable, non-volatile and water soluble bio-marker with a 3 to 5-day window of detection. It can be detected in urine, hair, plasma and body tissues. False positives are not a concern with EtG/EtS, unlike in a regular urine test.

Related Reading: What is Ethyl Glucuronide (EtG)?

In the past, EtG testing was largely a lab-based test that will also require confirmation for positive screens using either LC/MS/MS or LC/MC or GC/MS. It was only fairly recently that some instant EtG tests have become available in the market. They provide results in 5 minutes and are comparable to the more expensive lab-based tests. These products are very convenient for use in the workplace especially for zero-alcohol-tolerance environments.

What Are the Goals of Your Drug-Free Workplace Program?

When deciding which alcohol test methods to include in your drug-free workplace program, it would help to go back and reconcile your choices with the objectives of your drug-free workplace program. Know that alcohol testing is a powerful deterrent to workplace alcohol use and abuse. It is also an effective way to identify employees who may need help. Take the time to discuss your options with your legal adviser; have them verify state and federal laws and how they may apply to your company; identify which testing laboratories in your area can provide the services you want and proceed from there.

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