New Analysis Shows Positive Drug Test Rate Highest in Two Decades

F.J. Thomas

Sarasota, FL ( – While a shortage of workers may impact the bottom of line of profit and productivity, there are numerous other side effects that can directly impact cost. When employers are understaffed, employees are often required to work longer hours leading to exhaustion and accidents. Additionally, employers may hire untrained employees which can result in not only more errors, but also skipping safety protocols that can cause accidents as well. While employers are already at a disadvantage for avoiding accidents with an understaffed workforce, according to a new study there may be more than employee numbers to factor in.

In 2021, workforce drug test positivity levels climbed to the highest level in two decades, according to a recent study released by Quest Diagnostics. The researchers gathered data on over 11 million test results from urine, hair, and oral fluid drug tests over the course of last year. Overall, the positivity rate was 4.6 percent, up from 4.4 percent in 2020, and 3.5 percent from 2010 to 2012 which was an all-time low in a 20 year period. In the years leading up to 2001, the highest percentage was in 1988 at 13.6 percent, however the percentages steadily declined until 2000, and in 2001 the positivity rate was the same as last year at 4.6 percent.

For federally mandated and safety-sensitive employer groups, the positivity rate remained steady at 2.2 percent for 2020 and 2021, which was 4.8 percent higher than the 2.1 percent in 2017. For general industry, the positivity rate increased 1.8 percent with a 5.6 percent for 2021 compared to 5.5 percent the previous year.

Post-accident positive drug rates increased from 7.7 percent in 2017 to 9.7 percent last year. When comparing post-accident results against pre-employment positivity rates for cocaine use via urine tests, the percent difference in 2017 was 152 percent. In 2021, the percentage difference jumped to 266.7 percent with .18 percent pre-employment and .66 percent for post-accident.

Overall, 16 industries saw an increase in the number of positive test results, and 17 out of 17 industries saw an increase in positive test results for marijuana within the last year. A total of 15 of the 17 industries with increases in marijuana positivity were double-digit increases. Six of the 17 industries have seen increases of double or more for marijuana use. The six industries include Transportation and warehousing, finance and insurance, utilities, accommodations and food service, retrial, and professional scientific and technical services.

When broken out by industry, the healthcare and social assistance industry has seen a steady increase since 2019. According to the study graphics, the positivity rate in 2021 was a little over 5 percent, up from around 4.8 percent the previous year.

While construction saw a 16 percent decrease in methamphetamine use from .24 percent positivity rate in 2017 to .20 last year, the industry saw an overall increase of 12.2 percent in drug positives tests, going from 4.1 percent in 2020 up to 4.4 percent in 2021.

Barry Sample, PhD, Senior Science Consultant for Quest Diagnostics believes the study and trending, especially in federally regulated industries, brings up issues that employers need to navigate in difficult staffing times. “Our Drug Testing Index data raises important questions about what it means to be an employer committed to employee health and safety. Eager to attract talent, employers may be tempted to lower their standards. In the process, they raise the specter of more drug-related impairment and worksite accidents that put other employees and the general public in harms’ way.”

Given the timing of an upward trend in drug use in correlation with a worker shortage and the side effects of that, one has to question whether the side effects of worker shortages could be potentially inadvertently fueling the increase in drug use.