(Photo by Guy Lawrence for ENR)

Substance abuse continues to plague the construction industry, threatening lives and safety, increasing workers’ compensation insurance premiums and reducing worker productivity. While some unions in the past have embraced drug testing, others have not. But contractors, union leaders and owners now are pushing new programs to make it easier and cheaper to curb substance abuse.

The ironworkers’ and electrical workers’ international unions each are finalizing new national programs to create drug and alcohol free work places. Beginning in January, ironworker local unions and contractor members of the Ironworker-Management Progressive Action Cooperative Trust (IMPACT) will have the option to include a substance abuse testing program into new collective bargaining agreements.

Contractors will pay to test any worker who volunteers for the program, which costs between $30 and $45 per person. Results will be kept in a database administered by a third party that is accessible to contractors each time they request workers from the union’s hiring hall.

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Testing a worker once is more cost efficient than testing each time he or she works for a different contractor, explains Frank Migliaccio, safety director for the ironworkers’ union. IMPACT members who participate in the drug test program are likely to gain more work because owners know they have already tested drug free, says Migliaccio. This is especially important to smaller contractors, he adds. IMPACT also is negotiating with insurance carriers to offer participating contractors more attractive insurance rates.

One steel erection contractor recently got a jump start on the testing program. Delor Cornell, president of Cornell and Co., Woodbury, N.J., says her quest for a drug-free workplace is personal. The management chairwoman of IMPACT’s substance abuse task force says employees must understand that drug testing is a program to save families.

On Aug. 24, persons at her firm’s headquarters were tested after being notified of the program a year earlier. Random drug testing now will be performed quarterly, but the process will be changed. The first test took all morning, with employees having to wait their turns. "That was quite costly," she admits. In the future, employees will be tested in shifts, according to Cornell.

Cornell expects to see benefits since impaired workers generally cut into safety and productivity. "It may not necessarily be that they are working slower, but accidents happen, so everything has to be done twice," she explains. "You lose 30% with a user because [he or she is] accident prone," Cornell adds. "Random testing is very inexpensive and in the long run a great deterrent."

Cornell notes that most employees have responded favorably to the testing program. Most employees would rather not work next to someone who is impaired, she says. Often the person who gets hurt is not the one who is using drugs. Others are affected because a user may drop something on someone else, or otherwise cause injury.

The construction arm of the electrical workers’ union and the National Electrical Contractors Association agreed earlier this month to require that a substance abuse testing policy be included in every national and local collective bargaining agreement. A drug-free workplace improves safety, productivity and "enhances our opportunity for employment," says Edwin D. Hill, president of the electrical workers’ union. "We’re not trying to mask that there is a drug problem out there."

Recovery Fuels Demand For Workers

Construction employment has rebounded strongly from 2002’s recession-induced low. In August, there were over 6.9 million white and blue-collar workers employed in the construction industry, according to the U.S. Labor Dept.’s Bureau of Labor Statistics’ seasonally adjusted data. This is 2.8% higher than last August and 1.5% higher than the previous peak set in 2001. However, most of the employment gains have been centered in the hot residential building market, which helped push employment in the building sector up 4.3% above a year ago. Employment in the non-building markets was up just 0.9%.

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics. Seasonally adjusted total construction employment in august for both white and blue colloar workers. August 2004 is preliminary data.