By Adam R. Young, A. Scott Hecker, and Craig B. Simonsen

Seyfarth Synopsis: The rate of positive drug test results among America’s workforce reached its highest rate in 2021 since 2001, and was up more than 30% in the combined U.S. workforce from an all-time low in 2010-2012, according to a new analysis released by Quest Diagnostics, the world’s leading provider of diagnostic information services.

Employers face mounting challenges relating to employee drug impairment, use, and possession in the workplace.  The Quest Diagnostics study, based on over 11 million drug test results collected between January and December 2021, reveals insights into workforce drug use as employers grapple with creating safe, healthful work environments amid an ongoing recruitment and retention crisis. The overall positivity rate between January and December 2021 was 4.6%, compared with 4.4% in 2020.  The 2021 positivity rate represented an increase of 31.4 percent from the all-time low of 3.5% just 10 years ago (2010-2012).

The data combines employment-related testing data from private employers, federally-mandated drug testing (such as DOT-regulated drivers, pilots, and nuclear power industry employees), and federal employees.

Positivity for Marijuana Continues Upward Climb In U.S. Workforce

The largest drivers for these increased rates has been positivity for marijuana, particularly in those states that have legalized recreational marijuana.  Positivity rates for marijuana in the general U.S. workforce, based on more than 6 million urine tests, continued an upward climb, increasing 8.3%, for the highest positivity rate ever reported. Over the last five years, positivity for marijuana in the general U.S. workforce increased 50%.  For oral fluid tests for marijuana, the drug positivity rate was 14.8% in 2021, an increase of 20.3 percent compared to 2020 (12.3%) and up 68.2% over five years (8.8% in 2017).

Oral fluid tests generally have a shorter window of drug detection than urine, and can detect some drugs faster, in a matter of minutes versus hours. Oral fluid collection also has the advantage of being observed, making it harder to subvert the testing process.

Overall Workforce Drug Positivity Decreased, But Increased For Marijuana, Methamphetamine And Cocaine

At the same time, the positivity rate for cocaine increased 46.6% (0.85% in 2021 versus 0.58% in 2020), its highest spike since 2006, and methamphetamine increased 26.4% (0.67% in 2021 versus 0.53% in 2020), exhibiting year-over-year increases for the last 5 years.

Jenny Burke, Vice President of Impairment Practice, at the National Safety Council, is quoted saying

drug use affecting the work environment is a complex problem that is not going away. When workers use impairing substances, it can create incidents that compromise the safety of other workers and, in some cases, the general public. Employers should have the right and ability to maintain a substance-free workplace and the use of drug testing, including oral fluid in addition to urine. NSC supports policies and procedures that ensure safe and healthy workplaces.

As we previously blogged, the National Safety Council continues to recommend a zero tolerance policy for marijuana in the workplace for employees in safety sensitive positions.

During the recent pandemic downswing, many employers are contemplating returning their workforces to physical, brick-and-mortar worksites and are taking the opportunity to revisit workplace policies. All employers should consider how returning to in-person work will affect employee safety across the board and should plan accordingly, including in the face of rising drug test positivity. Though recreational marijuana use may be legal in certain U.S. jurisdictions, that does not negate the potential safety and health effects it could have on places of work. To mitigate safety and enforcement risks from OSHA and DOT, employers should communicate clear policies and consider providing relevant training to their employees concerning the impacts of drug use on work environments.

For more information on this or any related topic please contact the author, your Seyfarth attorney, or any member of the Workplace Safety and Health (OSHA/MSHA) Team.