To work, you must beat video 'game'

August 21, 1994|By Kim Clark | Kim Clark,Sun Staff Writer

UPLAND, Calif. -- Early every morning, about a dozen oil truck drivers line up in the office of the R. F. White Co., and joke with each other as they wait their turn to play a simple computer game.

If they can twiddle a knob to keep a squirming green blip in the center of a computer screen for 15 seconds, the computer prints out a receipt the workers exchange for the keys to their tankers and their jobs for the day.

But if they don't maneuver the knob well enough to keep the blip away from the screen edges in four tries, the drivers are sent home as unsafe.

No receipt, no keys. No keys, no work. And no pay.

Welcome to the new world of workplace drug testing.

Although almost nine out of 10 large employers now require workers to submit urine samples for drug tests, a tiny but growing number of employers have found standard drug tests to be too expensive, narrow and demeaning.

So, about two dozen employers nationwide are now trying out video game-like tests originally developed to gauge the mental acuity of astronauts but retooled for the civilian market by two companies, including Columbia-based Essex Corp.

One customer, the Albuquerque Dukes AAA baseball team managed by former Oriole Rick Dempsey, is using the computer tests to measure the effect of travel on batting and fielding performance.

But most clients -- ranging from truckers, ski resorts, pharmaceutical makers and security services -- send home their workers who can't concentrate well enough to pass the computer tests, figuring they are too drugged, drunk or tired to work safely.

The two firms attempting to beat the computer-testing sword into profitable corporate plowshares say the computer tests are a natural to replace urine drug tests because the computers give immediate results and screen out any kind of dangerous impairment.

"If you are running a company and trying to make sure someone is fit for duty, a drug test is too late" because the person could be working under the influence while the employer waits for the results, said Essex President Harry Letaw Jr.

Besides, he said, providing a urine sample is embarrassing. Running through the computer tests can be kind of fun, he said.

The computer tests ensure safer workplaces because, unlike urine tests, they weed out anyone who would be an unsafe

worker for any reason, including legal drugs or illness, Mr. Letaw said.

The tests, some of which Essex used to train and test astronauts, "check to make sure a person who reports to work is wired up properly," Mr. Letaw said.

Worker sets pace

The tests won't unfairly flunk the computer-scared, though, Mr. Letaw said. Each worker sets his or her own standard by taking the test about 10 times.

Thereafter, the computer passes them as they long as they perform within, say, 20 percent of their own average score.

For about $2,500 a year, Essex leases employers a computer programmed with tests of anything from short-term memory to understanding of sentences.

Workers sign on with their own password, then take a battery of five different tests, such as one in which they must say whether two patterns of asterisks match.

Golden, Colo.-based competitor Performance Factors Inc. offers a computer with a roving blip test for hand-eye coordination for about $200 per employee per year.

The computer systems have won support from civil libertarians, who say they do what safety tests should do -- test for impairment -- rather than poke into an employee's off-hours activities.

Urine drug tests "are clearly an invasion of privacy" that tell an employer whether a worker may have smoked marijuana over the weekend, but not whether they can safely operate machinery on Monday morning, said Milind Shah, spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union.

Mr. Shah said his office has referred companies looking for noninvasive safety tests to Essex and Performance Factors.

And most of those who've tried the computer impairment tests )) love them.

Accidents, claims drop

Darryl White, who runs the R. F. White Co., installed the computer test for his oil truck drivers because it preserves his workers' privacy: "I have sown a couple wild oats myself," he admitted.

But since only the alert can pass the test, Mr. White is also stopping the strung out, hung over, or merely fatigued from driving his oil and gas tankers on Los Angeles highways.

Since installing the Performance Factors Inc. system four years ago, Mr. White says the number of accidents and workers' compensation claims has dropped.

He figures the system has saved him about $30,000 in insurance premiums, as well as his peace of mind.

"I want to sleep easily at night," he said.

Although he has talked up the tests to his fellow truckers, Mr. White said he hasn't yet persuaded anyone to follow suit.

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