Employers Urged to Consider Substance Abuse Strategies as Employees Return

Nancy Grover

Secaucus, NJ (WorkersCompensation.com) – The latest drug test results do not bode well for the workforce in the midst of a pandemic. The percentage of positive tests hit a 16-year high in 2019 and was a percentage point higher than the 30-year low recorded between 2010 and 2012.

“As many companies consider their return to office strategies, they are rightfully considering COVID-19 testing, social distancing protocols, personal protective equipment and other needs,” said Barry Sample, senior director of science and technology at Quest Diagnostics, in an emailed statement to WorkersCompensation.com. “However, we’ve seen data that suggest the pandemic could impact our nation’s mental health and consequently risk of substance use, which suggests that employers should consider safety strategies that address these issues as well.”

The current environment is also blamed for an increase in drug deaths in the first several months of 2020. Quest’s report said social isolation and other disruptions are partly attributable for the 13 percent increase in drug fatalities this year compared to last. In 2019, the rate of drug deaths in the U.S. rose 5 percent, following a decline in 2018. These were driven largely by methamphetamine, cocaine and fentanyl.

Quest’s annual drug testing index, based on an analysis of more than nine million workplace drug tests, shows the overall positivity rate rose to 4.5 percent, with marijuana topping the list. The positivity rate for marijuana increased nearly 11 percent in the general U.S. workforce in 2019.

“Marijuana continues to be an enduring presence in the U.S. workforce,” Sample said in a press statement. “Changing attitudes toward its use could pose heightened risks especially in safety-sensitive positions and those states exploring legalization.”

Meth, Cocaine

While marijuana is the most widely used drug among workers according to drug test results, it is clearly not the only one on the rise.

“While the national debate on drug misuse in the workforce has focused primarily on marijuana, increasing positivity rates for cocaine and methamphetamine are also cause for concern,” Sample said. “Positivity by drug and region can be random and unpredictable. Our data is a reminder that it is important to remain vigilant about all drug misuse in the workforce.”

Methamphetamine use has increased significantly in the last five year, according to Quest’s analysis of more than 18 million urine drug tests from 2015 to 2019. Especially hard hit was the Midwest.

“The Midwest region experienced year-over-year increases, driven primarily by double-digit increases in the East North Central region during this period,” according to the report. “Over the past five years, methamphetamine positivity in the Midwest increased nearly 78 percent (0.09% in 2015 versus 0.16% in 2019).”

The Midwest and the West saw increases in cocaine positivity rates over the past five years. In the Midwest, positive cocaine results increased by 40 percent, .20 percent in 2015 versus .28 percent in 2019. While the positivity rate in that region had been 20 percent less than the national rate in 2015, it was 3.7 percent above the national rate last year.

The West saw an increase in cocaine use of 53 percent, despite the fact that the positivity rate there “has been historically far lower…” the report said. The rate “rose from 40 percent below the national rate in 2015 to 14.8 percent below in 2019.” The increases were primarily driven by higher positivity rates in Colorado, Nevada and Oregon.

Positive rates for opiates declined more than 19 percent between 2018 and 2019, and decreased 49 percent over the period 2015 to 2019.

The retail trade industry had the highest overall positivity rate of drug use across all five years of the analysis. The Accommodations and Food Service category had the highest workforce positivity rate for marijuana, with a relative increase of 65 percent over the five-year period.

The data and analysis will be further explored by Sample during a webinar Thursday, Sept. 10 at 2:00 EDT.

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