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Performance Tests vs. Drug Tests

President Bush last week proudly announced the results of a new government survey that showed a dramatic drop in the use of illegal drugs. If true, it would have been great news for this holiday season.

But there have been serious challenges to the accuracy of the survey, which seems to have grossly underestimated the continued use of drugs plaguing this country.

Illegal drugs are a monstrous evil that account for much of the major crime in America, and neither Bush nor anyone else contends that we are close to victory in the war on drugs.

However, while that struggle continues, obviously we must not harass or unjustly punish people in the process, and there may be some good news about that danger.

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Several researchers say there is a quick, cheap, non-invasive test of a worker’s ability to safely perform a job without using urinalysis or other tests that violate our highly valued right of privacy.

More and more companies use those invasive, often inaccurate examinations to screen out suspected drug users. A growing number of employers are using undercover agents to spy on employees who might be buying or selling drugs.

Testing for drug use by urinalysis, or a new technique that can detect drugs in a person’s hair, is hotly contested because it amounts to a check on the lifestyle of those tested, not just on their fitness for work.

Court battles are still raging over the accuracy of such tests and whether they can be legally made at random among all workers in safety-related jobs.

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Workers have been fired after tests falsely indicated that they were on drugs, and companies have paid substantial damages for those mistakes.

Such invasions of privacy are understandable, because drug and alcohol abuse results in vast numbers of workplace deaths and injuries, and costs the nation billions of dollars each year in lost production time and damaged equipment.

So it would be a major step forward if the new non-invasive performance tests could curb the workplace havoc caused by workers whose abilities are seriously impaired not just by drugs but by a personal problem.

One method called Factor 1000 that was recently put on the market does not test for drugs or alcohol but tests only the ability of a worker to safely do any potentially dangerous job. Unfortunately, it, like urinalyses, could be unfair to workers.

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The Factor 1000 test is simple and takes only about 30 seconds. It consists of a software program on a personal computer equipped with a special keyboard and a control knob.

Before starting on a job, the worker uses the knob to try to keep a swaying pointer in the center of the screen. The pointer swings faster and faster from left to right, and the test ends when the pointer swings too far, as it inevitably does. Workers pass if they can keep it relatively steady long enough to show that they are up to their own, predetermined standard.

The computerized hand-eye coordination test indicates whether a person is too impaired to work for any reason--drugs, alcohol or even because of a sleepless night.

Marc Silverman, president of Alameda-based Performance Factors Inc., which markets Factor 1000, compares it to a sobriety test given to a motorist to see if a blood alcohol test should be made. But Silverman says tests such as walking a straight line or putting your finger on your nose are unsophisticated and far less accurate than Factor 1000, which costs less than $1 a day per worker.

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Those who fail can be given a day off, moved to another, less dangerous job, and, if they fail the test repeatedly, can be offered assistance, such as drug rehabilitation or family counseling.

One drawback to the performance test is that a worker who fails twice in a row may be fired just because of, say, that temporary emotional family squabble. Or a kind employer might pry into a worker’s personal life to try to find the problem that caused the failure. That could be a more serious invasion of privacy than a urinalysis.

The concept of the performance test isn’t new. Different versions were developed through research sponsored in the early 1950s by the Air Force and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, according to Silverman.

Companies using the system say it has significantly reduced the number of accidents and, when used by fair-minded employers, does not have to result in an invasion of privacy, which is inherent in a urinalysis.

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Lewis Maltby, a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union, recently wrote that many employers have relied on drug testing because they saw no better alternative, especially for safety-sensitive jobs. He feels that performance testing may be that better alternative.

But Paul Schrade of the Southern California chapter of the ACLU worries that tests such as Factor 1000 can still mean an invasion of workers’ private lives and could give employers another weapon to control their employees. He concedes, though, that such tests are better than random urinalysis tests.

A California Senate hearing will open Jan. 22 in Sacramento to evaluate Factor 1000 and other test proposals. Perhaps the state can play a key role in encouraging alternatives to invasive drug tests.

Everyone would agree that workers whose abilities are seriously impaired should not be piloting planes, driving buses or operating potentially dangerous machinery.

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So if tests such as Factor 1000 prove to be generally effective and stringent rules are developed to guard against employer abuse, performance tests could become a useful alternative to urinalyses or other costly, time-consuming examinations that check on workers’ lifestyles more effectively than on their ability to do their jobs safely.


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