The first thing to understand is that alertness testing and drug testing measure different things. An alertness test assesses the test-taker’s cognitive sharpness and is intended to identify when his or her performance is atypical or diminished. This means that an alertness test is a top level or general screen, meaning that although it can measure variations in a person’s alertness and cognitive performance, it cannot determine the cause of these variations, i.e., the cause of impairment.
A drug test, on the other hand, does not measure alertness or cognitive performance; it is designed to detect the particular chemical signatures of certain substances present in certain intoxicants, and this process requires a biological sample from the employee.
Because alertness testing is a general top screen, it has a wider application than just detecting impairment from intoxication. Cognitive impairment and diminished performance can result from fatigue, illness, hangovers, medication, emotional distress, and inadequate nutrition, not only drugs and alcohol. Plus, many of these causes of impairment, like fatigue, illness, medications, and emotional distress, are normal parts of life and not the consequences of poor choices like irresponsible drug and alcohol use.
Drug tests often require a few days to process, so results would be received too late to truly prevent the risk posed by an intoxicated worker’s presence in the work environment. A drug test is most useful when needing to determine if an employee has consumed certain substances in the recent past. This purpose for drug testing makes sense during a post-accident investigation to determine causes, or under reasonable suspicion of on-the-job intoxication.
The following table outlines seven contrasting characteristics between drug testing and alertness testing. It should help you better understand the role of alertness testing as a daily workplace safety measure.
|Drug testing can...||Alertness testing can...|
|...reveal the presence of certain chemicals in a number of intoxicating substances.||...provide a measure of fitness for duty on a daily basis, or as often as necessary.|
|...dissuade employees from engaging in legal activities outside of work for fear of being caught and punished.||...deter employees from using intoxicating substances before going to work or while at work, knowing they would have to pass the alertness test.|
|...identify if intoxication from drugs was a contributing factor to an accident.||...deter employees from choosing to stay up too late before a shift, knowing they would have to pass the alertness test.|
|...undermine labor-management relations
(i.e., safety policies designed to catch wrongdoing; punitive safety culture).1
|...encourage employees to stay hydrated, get adequate sleep, and take up other healthy habits that help them manage their fatigue levels.|
|...increase employee grievance rates (e.g., false positives, medical marijuana, etc.).1||...improve productivity by reducing fatigue-related errors and lapses in judgment.3|
|...make finding qualified job candidates more difficult.1||...maintain privacy of employees' biological and medical information.|
|...delay identification of a drug-impaired employee due to processing time.2||...reduce turnover rates.3|
1. Seijts, G. H. & O'Farrell, G. (2005). Urine collection jars versus video games: Perceptions of three stakeholder groups toward drug and impairment testing programs. Journal of Drug Issues 35(4): 885-916. doi:10.1177/002204260603500411
2. Allen, R., Stein, A., and Miller, J. (1990). Performance testing as a determinant for fitness-for-duty. SAE Technical Paper 901870. doi:10.4271/901870
3. Predictive Safety. (2018). AlertMeter testimonial by Vforge (Video file). Retrieved from https://vimeo.com/253068230