Workplace Testing for Drugs — and COVID — Discussed

29 Apr, 2020 Nancy Grover


Sarasota, FL ( – With the move to tele everything during the coronavirus pandemic, one thing has not gone virtual: pre-employment physical exams. Workers in safety sensitive positions must undergo an in-person appointment, regardless of their fear of exposure.

“Physical exams can’t be done via telehealth,” said Susan Nelson, DO, Medical Review Officer & Medical Director for Florida-based Physicians Health Center. “For pilots’, truck drivers’ pre-employment physicals they have to come into the office to be seen, for their vital signs, urine drug tests – we have to see them to make sure they are physically able to do the job. COVID has not affected that except for personal protective equipment – masks, gloves, hand washing, social distancing as much as you can for a physical exam. But nothing has changed. Drug testing has to be done. There is no virtual or telehealth drug testing.”

Workers in safety sensitive positions, such as train engineers, airline pilots and truck drivers are required to comply with government mandated drug and alcohol testing. That has not changed during the current pandemic.

“If you have employee leery about going to a drug testing facility, that’s going to be a big problem,” said Patrick Armstrong, VP of OM Management, a drug testing program management. “He needs to be tested, and the company needs him to have a negative result. So he has to go.”

During a webinar on drug testing and complying with Department of Transportation requirements during the pandemic, a panel discussed a variety of issues related to testing employees and potential employees in the current environment. One of the most oft questions they get from employers is ‘can we add COVID-19 testing to the drug or pre-employment testing process.'

“No,” Armstrong said. “Drug testing on the DOT side is the 5-panel screening. The non-DOT side can have 5, 8 or 10 panel tests. But there’s nothing added to that with regard to COVID-19 … one has nothing to do with the other.”

The typical 5-panel DOT urine drug test screens for marijuana, cocaine, opiates, PCP and amphetamines. Additional drugs can be included in the testing, such as benzodiazepines, barbiturates, methadone, propoxyphene and Quaaludes.

COVID Testing

Even though COVID-19 testing cannot be included in urine drug screenings, employers still have options to determine whether a potential employee is infected. It could possible be done as part of the physical exam, “if you wanted to add it and the collection site has the ability,” Armstrong said.

With several states relaxing their pandemic restrictions and more businesses expected to open soon, the issue of testing workers for COVID-19 is increasingly being discussed.

“It seems employers are getting ready to panic as we open up,” said Margaret Spence, CEO C. Douglas & Associates and moderator of the webinar. “Everybody’s going to be hypersensitive about an employee’s temperature, demeanor, look and feel – everything.” To Nelson she asked, “what makes you pause and say as a physician, ‘if I were the employer, this would be the guidelines I’d set for a person in my workplace’”?

“First thing is the temperature,” Nelson responded. “Before everything started shutting down, gyms were open, etc., they’d take your temperature. That could be implemented in work. A forehead thermometer involves no contact at all.”

Bringing workers back to the workplace will be tough, Nelson said, and much will depend on personal judgement. Those reasonable suspected of having contracted the virus could be sent to ‘fit for duty’ testing. But just looking at someone cannot reveal whether they may have been exposed to COVID-19.

“With things opening, we still need to have personal protective equipment, especially masks and social distancing,” Nelson said. “These are going to be the new normal because you don’t know and you can’t send everyone to ‘fit for duty’ tests.”

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    About The Author

    • Nancy Grover

      Nancy Grover is a freelance writer having recently retired as the Director, Media Services for She comes to our company with more than 35 years as a broadcast journalist and communications consultant. Grover’s specialties include insurance, workers’ compensation, financial services, substance abuse, healthcare and disability. For 12 years she served as the Program Chair of the National Workers’ Compensation and Disability Conference® & Expo. A journalism/speech graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University, Grover also holds an MBA from Palm Beach Atlantic University.

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