Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Fitness for Duty, Redux:

Drug Testing Run Amok

Sometimes the most interesting information doesn't come from the news media, but from the private experiences of individuals.  One reader, Tom Clegg, posted two fascinating tidbits of information in response to my recent blogpost on fitness for duty.  Since I'm never sure that early readers of a post go back and find the comments, I thought it was worthwhile for me to provide his comments in a new posting.

As readers of the earlier post will remember, I highlighted the case of poppy seeds, which can provide a false positive for opium in the first-level (and cheaper) drug test.  I thought my own experience was amusing.  I was told that it would be advisable if I didn't eat poppy seed bagels. I decided that I wasn't going to let my employer tell me what to eat and what not to eat, so I vowed to eat only (or at least, mostly) poppy seed bagels from then on.  (And I do so to this day.)

Well, based on Tom's reports, I can only say that I was lucky I was never called for a random drug test after eating a poppy seed bagel.  Tom offered two stories.

The first was the experience of a colleague:

Years back a coworker of mine at Indian Point ate a poppy-seed bagel for breakfast.He got picked that day for a random drug test. He came up positive on the test. He was sent down to Brooklyn to be examined and evaluated. Found out it was because of the poppy seed bagel. Con Edison made him sign a paper where he promised never to eat poppy-seed bagels. If this sounds odd to make matters worse they still sold poppy-seed bagel in the cafeteria!

 The second was his own experience:

Now I will tell you my experience with random drug testing. I have a commercial drivers license. When the laws on CDL's changed backed in the 90's. I got picked for a random drug test for the DOT. Even though I worked at Indian Point nuclear power plant at the time, I was still given the cheaper random drug test. I had eaten a poppy seed bagel that morning. The test came back positive. I had to go down to Brooklyn be examined by a doctor checking between my fingers, behind my knees,between my toes for needle marks. I was asked questions and had to submit to another drug test before it was discovered that it was a false positive. The thing is when ever I go to another nuclear power plant to help out for an outage. The question always comes up, Have you ever tested positive on a drug test? To which I have to answer yes. Then I have to fill out a form and explain it over and over again. No matter how many times I have worked at the same plant it happens all the time.

In my previous post, I was commenting on Canada's very recent adoption of a fitness-for-duty rule, and I opined that the US had gone down that path years ago with little disruption.  Tom has opened my eyes to some problems that I hadn't known existed. 

Usually, in cases such as these, the solutions don't seem that difficult, and I find it hard to fathom why fixes aren't made.  The occasional expense of a second-level test seems to me to be fairer than telling people they can't eat certain foods for the duration of their employment.  (Especially if they keep serving poppy-seed bagels on site!)  It is one thing to tell them they can't do something that is illegal anyway, or that would be dangerous (even if legal), but it is quite another to start to forbid normal, harmless activities.  And one would think that questionnaires about past drug test results could focus on what the end result was, not the intermediate step that we know is sometimes wrong.

Although sometimes the "institutions" seem to clam up and be unwilling to make changes, there is some hope.  When I read Tom's stories, I thought about airline security and the similarly absurd stories we've been hearing over the last few years.  It's taken some time, but recently, TSA has made some moves to modify the rules.  It may seem to be too little, too late to many frequent fliers, but they are taking steps in the right direction.  Maybe there is also hope in the drug-testing arena.

I can only say that I am sorry to hear of the difficulties Tom and his colleague have faced because of a requirement that has a valid purpose.  If anyone reading this has a hand in preparing the rules and procedures for drug testing anywhere, I hope they will consider these stories and use them to create a more rational approach to drug testing rules in the future.  I can also hope that Canada benefits from the "lessons learned" in the US and develops the rules and procedures in such a way that they don't have the same problems. 


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