Substance abuse

Drug use at work: Higher than we thought

February 3, 2011: 11:31 AM ET

More workers use heroin on the job than previously thought. Some of them fly planes. A sobering look at some of the latest workplace drug use stats.

By Anne Fisher, contributor

First, the good news, such as it is: The number of Americans using cocaine while at work has declined sharply in the past couple of years, falling 29% between 2008 and 2009 alone, to about .29% of the population.

Now, the more disquieting news: Since the federal government tightened testing requirements last October, drug testing of employees like pilots, airplane mechanics, and train operators has revealed that twice as many employees as previously believed are using heroin and the use of prescription painkillers on the job is soaring.

Oral fluid testing of 320,000 employees from the workforce overall, between January and June 2010, detected the heroin marker 6-acetylmorphine at a rate of 0.04%, a huge increase over the 0.008% that had been found through urine tests. Separately, from the time new federal standards went into effect last October through the end of 2010, the marker showed up in 20% more transportation workers than before.

"It's still a low incidence rate," says Dr. Barry Sample, who runs the employer drug testing business at Quest Diagnostics, which based its findings on the results of more than 350,000 random drug tests. "Even so, you don't want to see anyone in a public safety role test positive.

"We're also seeing dramatic increases in on-the-job use of prescription opiates like oxycodone and oxymorphone," sold under the brand names Vicodin and Oxycontin, among others, he says. Results from more than 5.5 million tests showed an 18% jump in opiate positives between 2008 and 2009, and a rise of over 40% since 2005.

Post-accident employee drug tests are four times as likely to show employee use of opiates than pre-employment drug screening (3.7% post-accident versus .78% pre-employment, in the case of hydrocodone), suggesting that the substances have played a role in workplace accidents.

What's causing workers to come to work impaired? More

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