Tox Tuesday: Manufacturers struggle to find employees who pass drug tests

Since coming into common practice, drug tests have become essential for employers looking to keep their workplaces free of illegal substances. There’s just one problem. In some industries, companies are struggling to find applicants who can pass these tests, leading to serious manpower shortages.

The New York Times reported on the economic effects of the issue, profiling manufacturing companies that have seen as many as 25% to 50% of applicants fail drug screenings. One Ohio company is regularly forced to forgo work orders — around $200,000 a quarter — because its workforce simply isn’t large enough to handle the load.

In part, high failure rates may be happening because of the U.S.’s ongoing opioid crisis. The Federal Reserve System noted in its most recent Beige Book publication that high opioid addiction rates might be a factor. An average of 142 Americans die daily from drug overdoses, particularly from opioids. Increased usage of cannabis is also to blame.

One company’s solution has been automation. NPR reports on an Indiana company that spent over $5 million to install mechanical arms to replace entry-level workers. The company couldn’t retain enough human employees due to drug test failures.

So why can’t employers just ditch the tests? Many reasons, primarily safety and liability. The manufacturing industry can’t afford the risk of someone operating heavy machinery under the influence. Workplace accidents attributed to drugs can be horrific, like in a southern Indiana case where one employee caused the hand of another to be crushed. With drug abuse statistics rising, employers must be careful in order to avoid seeing workplace accident statistics also rise.

“The lightest product we make is 1,500 pounds, and they go up to 250,000 pounds,” Michael Sherwin, CEO of an Ohio manufacturer that produces galvanized containers, told the New York Times. “If something goes wrong, it won’t hurt our workers. It’ll kill them — and that’s why we can’t take any risks with drugs.”

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that the opioid epidemic created a burden of $78 billion on the nation’s economy in 2013, “a conservative estimate,” the researcher in charge told the New York Times. It’s hard to estimate loss in productivity, however, or the losses faced by companies who otherwise might expand but can’t find the workforce. But as the opioid epidemic continues to worsen — not just in the U.S., as Canada and the U.K. are seeing increased overdose rates as well — employers are bracing themselves for the consequences in the workplace.

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