Drug testing: The time is now

March 1, 2005 -  By

Dick Gooding has paid the price of not having a drug and alcohol testing program in place at his small landscape design/build company sooner than he did.

Effective July of 2004, Gooding’s Nursery & Landscaping in Sherrodsville, Ohio, was kicked out of its state trade association’s workers’ comp group rating program due to several costly claims. He believes were likely the result of employee drug use.

The company, now actively participating the Ohio Bureau of Workers’ Compensation Drug Free Workplace Program, hopes that a continuation of fewer and less severe workers’ comp claims will enable it to again participate in a group rating program “which allows substantial savings on workers’ comp premiums,” Gooding says.

“We started (drug) testing in mid-summer of 2003,” says Gooding, president of the landscape company that employs fewer than 50 workers. Here is the firm’s claims history prior to testing: 2000, nine claims; 2001, three claims; 2002, five claims; 2003, three claims. It has had just two claims, one of which was a bee sting, after implementing drug testing.

“One of the three claims in early 2003 was a severe claim that actually took us out of our group rating,” he continues. “When that employee was able to return to work toward fall, he was required to take a drug test and he tested positive. If we, a relatively small employer, are having these types of problems and results, what does this mean for other employers across the United States? You can be naive and overlook things only so long.”

The real cost of abuse

Drug and alcohol abuse is a costly issue for landscape contractors and other employers, in terms of economic, safety, and “human” costs, Hub Kelsh of Hub Kelsh in Dunwoody, Ga., a loss prevention consultant and investigator, says.

“From an economic standpoint, a substance abuser generally works at about two-thirds of his productivity—so one-third of the person’s paycheck is being wasted,” says Kelsh, a former federal drug enforcement officer. “He also causes other people to be disconnected, and they respond by anger, by slowing themselves down, grumbling and defeating the teamwork that had existed. Yet usually, these people are reluctant to blow the whistle.

“Invariably, when we find a lot of theft in a company, it’s substance abuse-related,” Kelsh adds. “An individual in great debt to his drug dealer turns his back when the dealer comes in and steals materials. He tells him where the keys are to company trucks and where the safes are. There are also occasions where employees use a company truck to transport drugs to a job site—not only their own, but also drugs for other employees.”

This, Kelsh says, becomes the employer’s issue because “in most states, when a vehicle is used in a crime, it can be seized by the federal government.”

Then there’s the equally big issue of workplace safety. “Vehicle use and increased use of mechanized equipment has become a necessity in the landscape industry, and individuals operating pieces of equipment unsafely put others in harm’s way,” Gooding says. “One vehicle accident involving a wrongful death verdict can exhaust insurance and the resources of small companies. If someone is taking drugs or abusing alcohol, it’s just a matter of time before accidents will occur.”

How about your program?

Both Kelsh and Attorney Tom Rebel of Fisher & Phillips LLP in Atlanta strongly urge landscape contractors to have drug and alcohol testing programs in place.

“Some states (including Florida) provide a discount on workers’ compensation costs for companies that comply with their drug-free workplace laws,” Rebel says. “Studies have shown that there are fewer on-the-job injuries, less use of company health benefits, and less absenteeism in companies that have good drug and alcohol (testing) programs.”

At the very least, do pre-employment drug testing, he stresses. But before you implement any drug and alcohol testing program, be sure to consult with legal counsel familiar with the laws surrounding drug testing in your state, he recommends.

Other times you may want to consider testing, he says, include: post-accident; upon “reasonable suspicion” (that an employee may be using drugs or alcohol); randomly (without any advance notice or warning); and/or after a worker returns from extended leave.

Kelsh suggests that companies also carefully measure attendance. “Be precise in documenting tardiness, absenteeism, early departures,” he says. “The substance abuser will reveal himself early on.”

In Ohio, for any state-funded project, “all general contractors and their respective subcontractors (i.e., landscapers) must have an approved drug free workplace program,” Gooding says. The Ohio BWC program has three different levels, all of which require four categories of testing: pre-employment and/or new hire; reasonable suspicion; post-accident; and follow-up assessment or treatment testing, he says.

“We started out at Level 1 initially. We have now moved to Level 2, which adds random drug testing of 10% of our average annual work force over the course of the program year. Level 3 requires 25%. With each level, you receive an additional percentage off (your workers’ compensation premium). Ten percent off your premium for Level 1; 15 percent of for Level 2; and 20% off for Level 3,” Gooding says.

“The statistics don’t lie,” Gooding says. “Alcohol and drug abuse exist in our society today. A high percentage of workers’ comp claims are a direct result of either alcohol or drug abuse since certain products can stay in a person’s system beyond the normal ‘high’ and thus impair the individual during working hours. If we can help individuals face their substance abuse problems and work with them in receiving professional help while still maintaining their job, then in the long run we have done what’s right by the individual, helped their family unit, and secured and maintained a valuable human resource—the employee—for our company.”

—The author is PLANET’s Safety Specialist and a freelance writer who lives in rural Belleville, Wis. Contact her at

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