Drug use on job being probed Investigators help, but detection can be difficult

July 08, 1996|By KANSAS CITY STAR

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- The explosive growth in methamphetamine use has a profound workplace effect.

Do you work in a hospital? One of your co-workers may be an undercover agent. On on an assembly line? Ditto. Believe it. You are being watched. And it's not just because somebody in management wants to dig up some dirt. It's because there are obvious indicators of illegal drug use among your co-workers.

A few weeks ago, a Kansas City-area manufacturer of food processing equipment lost more than one-tenth of its work force in a drug sweep. A private undercover agent, called in to monitor suspected drug abuse, did her job well. She documented on-site drug use by more than two dozen workers, seven of whom were dealing. None of them works there anymore.

Charles Carroll, president of ASET Corp., the Dayton, Ohio, undercover firm that worked the food-equipment company job, says he has several other investigators at work elsewhere in the Kansas City area. Other investigating companies are doing the same.

In every case, investigators are called in by companies that are suffering financial and behavioral consequences from drug abuse. On-the-job violence. Increased work-force irritability. More injuries. Fistfights on the assembly line. Decreased productivity. More mistakes. High absenteeism. Skyrocketing use of medical benefits. Employee thefts.

At the food-equipment plant, all those signs were present. Icing the cake was an internal theft of a $16,000 piece of equipment. The agent tracked it down and found that an employee had sold it for $800 to buy drugs.

When Carroll got into the drug investigative business in 1981, crack cocaine had yet to sweep America. Back then, if working America abused drugs at all, it was more likely to be in the use of depressants -- alcohol and marijuana.

But times changed. On the heels of cocaine came crystal meth. Meth is potent, addictive and -- unlike previous drugs of middle- and upper-class choice -- an amphetamine that hypes up and ravages people's systems. It turns "recreational users" into volatile thugs.

Drug users have gotten a lot more sophisticated about evading detection. You can read a magazine and get detailed instructions on how to beat a pre-employment urine test. Users know exactly how many hours they must stay clean, depending on their drug of choice, to beat a one-time urinalysis. They know what chemicals can be used to alter their sample.

Carroll says companies need to catch up. Toss urinalysis out with the bathwater. Substitute hair analysis.

"The inside of a hair follicle is a permanent recorder of what you have put in your system," Carroll advises. But, he adds, don't stop there.

The only way to truly combat drug abuse in the workplace is for managers to educate themselves about how to detect it, for companies to institute management and employee education programs and for employee assistance programs to stem small problems before they become rampant.

"Drug use among the working class is up dramatically in the last 24 months," Carroll says. "We have to respond to the current problem and try to keep it from coming back."

Pub Date: 7/08/96

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