Drug Tests: Yes or No?

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Back in 2003, a service guy I know rolled his truck in heavy rush-hour traffic on one of L.A.’s busiest freeways. He was carrying cal hypo, an extremely flammable form of chlorine, which mixed with some other pool chemicals during the crash and caught fire. The freeway had to be shut down for four hours in both directions while a hazmat crew dealt with the cleanup. Thankfully, no one was seriously injured.

He was found to be high on meth and alcohol at the time of the accident. It was his third DUI and by the time I met him, he rightly considered himself lucky to be alive. One day he showed me the “bill” for the cost of the incident — it was north of half a million dollars, which actually struck me as a bargain given the circumstances. Most tragic of all, he had a wife and two young children who were forced to manage in his absence during the years it took him to regain his freedom.

I share this story for a couple of reasons. First, it illustrates the devastation that substance abuse can cause in a life and the risks it can pose to others. But beyond that, it also shows that many jobs in the pool and spa industry add layers of risk to an impaired employee situation. These jobs can involve driving, working with machinery and transporting hazardous chemicals, as well as access to private property. As my story illustrates, being impaired in that work environment can be catastrophic.

Given that our industry is currently facing what many characterize as a severe labor shortage, questions of how you choose to manage your workforce become amplified in importance. One of the toughest issues for companies of all stripes, in and out of the industry, is what to do when it comes to drug testing and how to otherwise manage substance abuse issues in the workplace.

RELATED: Workplace Drug Abuse: Reducing the Risk of Impaired Workers

Company and client interests must be protected, but at the same time, needlessly stringent edicts can have a negative impact on company culture and infringe upon employees’ personal freedoms. What’s the right balance? Specifically, does it make sense to drug-test new hires or random-test employees? What measures and procedures do you have in place to deal with an employee who shows signs of a problem?

Those are all difficult questions based on a range of factors from the nature of the business to the beliefs of those in charge.

Personally, I’m opposed to mandatory drug testing as a starting point. If there’s no reason to believe a new hire or an existing employee has a problem, they deserve the benefit of the doubt, as do we all. Taken another way, I think it’s wrong to manage everyone based on the problems of the few. I’m all for conducting a background check when hiring and maintaining a zero-tolerance policy for inebriation in the workplace. But at the same time, dictating personal behavior during off hours does not make practical sense for people who have never demonstrated a problem.

That being said, if I was to hire a guy with a history like the service tech in the story that opened this column, there’s no question drug testing would be part of the deal. And in his case, it probably should be for the rest of his life, no matter the line of work.

If that sounds somewhat conflicted, guilty as charged. But that’s the nature of addiction. It creates both the brightest of lines and most bedeviling of ambiguities, all at the same time. Deciding how to structure an effective company policy is not an easy matter, but it’s important.

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