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Employers urged to test for drugs

March 17, 1999|By JULIE E. GREENE

Sandy Brisentine, human resources manager at Staples Distribution Center, knows drug abuse can pose dangers in the workplace.

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Her company's recent cooperation with the Washington County Sheriff's Department led to the arrests of three employees at the Staples plant on marijuana charges.

Two of the three were forklift operators, she said.

"It's like being behind the wheel under the influence of a substance," Brisentine said.

Drugs are a bigger problem in the area than many employers realize, said Jeff Yingling, chairman of the Hagerstown-Washington County Chamber of Commerce.

That's why the Greater Hagerstown Committee is encouraging more businesses to test their employees for drugs both before they are hired and afterward through random testing, said Gary Batey, chairman of the committee's Substance Abuse Task Force.

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The committee and Chamber are co-hosting a seminar on substance abuse in the workplace on April 22 at the Sheraton Four Points Hotel between 8 a.m. and 10:30 a.m.

The message business leaders want to send to the community is: "We don't want you here if you're on drugs and you can't get a job here if you're on drugs," said James Latimer, a task force member and a vice president of Allegheny Power.

Brisentine, who has worked for various companies across the country, said she has noticed the drug test failure rate is higher here.

Six percent of people applying to work at the Hopewell Road distribution center have failed the test, Brisentine said.

"That's high," and it doesn't include applicants who don't show up for the test, Brisentine said.

While she suspects that many applicants who don't show up are doing drugs, she doesn't know for sure.

Many employers are afraid to initiate drug testing because they don't know their rights, Yingling said.

Others such as Mack Trucks, Citicorp, Washington County Health Systems, D.M. Bowman, Allegheny Power and City Hospital in Martinsburg, W.Va., have required pre-employment or random drug tests for employees for years.

Labs at Washington County Hospital, City Hospital and Summit Health in Franklin County, Pa., conduct either drug screenings or tests for more than 825 companies in the Tri-State area, hospital officials said.

Hagerstown Police Chief Dale Jones said he and other local law enforcement leaders have been keeping the Greater Hagerstown Committee up to date on their efforts to curb the local drug problem for at least four years.

Law enforcement agencies in Washington County made 1,069 drug arrests in 1998, police said.

"We felt employers would be key to helping to stem the use of substance abuse," Jones said. Seventy percent of substance abusers work, but may not be taking the drug or be under the influence on the job, he said.

While Staples doesn't do random testing once employees are hired, the national company plans to start testing for drugs after accidents, Brisentine said.

The company takes other aggressive approaches to curb employee drug use.

Staples is one of many local companies that offers an employee assistance program through a third party. The program allows employees who abuse drugs to seek help without the employer's knowledge, Brisentine said. The employer pays for the program.

Staples worked with sheriff's deputies in early February to set up a surveillance operation after a supervisor smelled marijuana on some employees returning from a 15-minute break, Brisentine said.

All three employees were charged with possession of marijuana and drug paraphernalia and fired, according to Brisentine and police.

A 1996 survey reported dependency on drugs and alcohol costs employers $200 billion every year, according to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in Washington, D.C.

Those costs include low productivity, absenteeism, staff turnover, increased health insurance usage, disability, mistreatment of customers, injury to customers, workers' compensation, theft, vandalism, security and workplace violence, according to the national chamber.

After Phoenix Color Corp. started random drug tests in October 1997, absenteeism, accidents and thefts declined while job performance and morale improved, said Jim Booth, human resources vice president.

Booth said employees appreciated that people on drugs weren't driving forklifts or operating machinery.

Many employers have become interested in drug testing since Maryland legislators changed the workers' compensation law last year, said Evie Baer, manager of Antietam Occupational Medicine.

Instead of having to prove drugs or alcohol were the sole cause of an injury, the employer now has to prove only that drugs or alcohol were a primary cause of the injury in order to get relief from paying benefits to the employee, Baer said.

Baer said it is too soon to know whether the law and drug tests will reduce workers' compensation costs for employers. Already, the number of employers asking for random or post-accident drug tests has increased, she said.

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