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Paynesville Press - January 7, 2003

PAHCS offers drug and alcohol screening seminar

By Bonnie Jo Hanson

Employers who are required to participate in drug and alcohol screening programs by the U.S. Department of Transportation, as well as employers who are interested in drug and alcohol screening for other reasons, can attend a free seminar on Saturday, Jan. 17, by the Paynesville Area Hospital.

The free seminar, which is being hosted by the laboratory staff at the Paynesville Area Health Care System, will provide information to employers about planning and implementing drug and alcohol policies in the workplace.

Employers in the transportation industry are required to have a drug and alcohol policy in place, with employees undergoing regular drug and alcohol screening, said laboratory technician Renae Wirkkula, who is the coordinator of the laboratory’s drug and alcohol screening collection program.

Laws regarding drug and alcohol policies can be confusing, she noted. This seminar is aimed to help employers know who needs to comply, what specific laws may affect employers, what to expect from a screening program, and how to set up a drug and alcohol policy.

The U.S. Department of Transportation started its drug screening program in the 1960s. The laws were updated in 1987, and again in 2001 when terrorist attacks prompted the government to toughen its drug and alcohol screening mandates, said Wirkkula.

Under federal law, a drug and alchohl screening program is required for anyone who employs operators with commercial drivers licenses, bus drivers or anyone who operates a vehicle that can carry 16 or more people, and operators of vehicles with a gross weight of 26,000 pounds (alone or combined with a trailer or tow).

Failure to comply with federal mandates can be costly, said Wirkkula. An employer found not keeping records can be fined up to $10,000 each day if a policy is not in place. Mistakes in recordkeeping can cost up to $5,000 in fines. And operators caught driving or working while under the influence of illegal drugs or alcohol can face criminal penalities.

Some employers or operators may not even know that they are required to participate in a screening program, said Wirkkula. For example, some operators who haul crops for their neighbors can fall under the drug screening mandate and not know it, she added.

According to Wirkkula, employers who are not required to comply with the U.S. Department of Transportation screening mandate could still benefit from implementing their own policies. Drug or alcohol abuse in the workplace can result in increased tardiness and absenteeism, decreased productivity, increased workplace injuries, decreased morale, and increased liability for the employer.

There are a lot of grey areas in the law when it comes to setting up and implementing a drug and alcohol policy, said Wirkkula. She hopes to help dispel some confusion during the seminar with the help of North Star Medical, a consortium that specializes in drug and alcohol screening and the law.

Eight technicians at the PAHCS laboratory – which has been a Department of Transportation certified collection site since 1987 – are certified to collect urine samples for drug testing and submit them to an outside laboratory for analysis. Four lab technicians are also certified to perform breath analysis for alcohol.The lab is certified to collect pre-employment specimens, random specimens, follow-up specimens, and specimens ordered for an employer’s reasonable suspicions.

The cost of drug screening varies according to the frequency and type of screening that is necessary. The average cost is $100 to $150 per test, from collection through analysis, said Wirkkula.

Currently, through North Star Medical, 80 companies use the PAHCS laboratory for drug and alcohol screening collections. Last year the laboratory collected specimens for 270 drug screens and for 25 alcohol screens.

The free seminar will be held on Saturday, Jan. 17, from 9 a.m. to 12 noon in the Blakely and Nehring meeting rooms in the northwest corner of the hospital (use the old emergency entrance). To register, call the lab at 320-243-7751 by Monday, Jan. 12.

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