Detecting Drugs in the Workplace that Justify Immediate Employee Testing

Employers have the complex job of developing and implementing a valid drug and alcohol testing program in the workplace. It’s complex because the program must meet the laws of the Commonwealth and of the state in which the employer is located, and the employer must exercise judgment on a case by case basis in terms of who to test, when to test, and what actions to take if the employee has positive test results. The employer must also decide when an employee should be tested outside of the normal blanket or random testing schedule due to impairment or obvious signs that alcohol or drugs are being used.

An effective testing program will include immediate drug and alcohol testing when there is reasonable cause. Called “for cause” testing, the purpose of the testing is not to punish the employee if impaired. The purpose is to protect the safety of the workplace including the employee and the employee’s coworkers.

The question is: What types of situations create reasonable cause for testing? What type of employee behaviors would justify a supervisor asking an employee to immediately take a Saliva Drug Test or to submit to an alcohol test by using the Lion SD 500 or to take a urine drug test? The situations can vary, of course, but following is a sample of the types of behaviors or incidents that fall under reasonable cause.

  • Supervisor observes the possession of illicit substances in the workplace
  • Employee is observed using illegal drugs
  • Employee is observed drinking alcohol
  • Work performance is erratic or abnormal
  • Employee is habitually late
  • Employee exhibits abusive, belligerent and/or aggressive behavior
  • Employee makes frequent errors in judgment
  • There is an accident or near accident that could have caused or did lead to injury or property damage
  • Employee cannot respond to supervisor instructions or makes odd responses
  • Employee has  difficulty speaking
  • Mood changes are frequent or employee withdraws and seems unable to communicate normally
  • Employee falls asleep on the job
  • Physical signs of drug or alcohol use such as bloodshot eyes, excessively small or large pupils, tremors, needle marks or inability to maintain balance
  • Employee smells like alcohol or marijuana

There are three points to make about this list. First is the fact that it’s not complete because there is no way to list every possible indication that an employee is using drugs or alcohol. The circumstances will vary of course depending on the type of position, the workplace location and the employee. Second, signs of impairment may indicate illicit drug or alcohol use but the supervisor should not accuse the employee because the truth may be the employee is sick, under extreme stress, has a disability, or is using prescribed medications.1 It is not the employer’s responsibility to diagnose an employee’s health condition. Third, the supervisor must clearly document the facts, events, circumstances, behaviors and/or accident that serve as reasonable cause for drug or alcohol testing.

Workplace drug and alcohol testing should occur when:2

  1. An employee’s impairment due to drugs or alcohol creates a safety risk
  2. There is reasonable cause to believe impairment exists
  3. The drug testing equipment is capable of identifying the presence of drugs so that the readings can be measured against standards

It’s crucial to use quality workplace alcohol and drug test equipment when immediate testing is called for. CMM Technology at offers a range of products that can give the employer reliable first test results.


1Geraldton Port Authority. (2009, April). HSE Policies & Procedures – 2.16 Drug and Alcohol Procedure. Retrieved March 20, 2011, from Geraldton Port Authority:

2The Privacy Committee of New South Wales. (1992, October). Drug Testing in the Workplace. Retrieved February 25, 2011, from NSW Government Lawlink Justice & Attorney General:…/drug%20testing%20complete…/drug%20testing%20complete.doc

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