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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Tuesday, June 19, 2007

On-site testing for drugs to start

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By Treena Shapiro
Advertiser Government Writer

Employers will be able to use an on-site oral screening kit to test their employees for drug use, under a new state law that goes into effect July 1.

The oral fluid drug screens, which are cheaper, faster and more convenient than urinalysis, were pushed for by the construction industry, which has been drug-testing its employees since the mid-1980s.

Although the law goes into effect in a couple of weeks, collective bargaining agreements will have to be amended before companies can start using these non-FDA-approved tests.

However, since the bill was backed by unions, management and the state, it is not expected to take long to adjust the contracts. The law applies to all employees whose contracts allow drug testing, such as those in the construction industry.

Kyle Chock, executive director of the Pacific Resource Partnership, an alliance between contractors and the Carpenters Union Local 745, said the construction industry pushed for the saliva swab tests as a way to decrease costs and save time while keeping job sites safe.

"Construction is a dangerous job to begin with, and we don't want to make it more dangerous by having people who are on drugs or alcohol," he said.

The cost savings are significant: $15 for a swab test versus $50 to $60 for a urine test, Chock said.

Contractors generally are working to meet a schedule, so random and periodic urine tests are rare within the industry because it requires employees to leave the job site.

This new law allows for the tests to be done on-site in a trailer or office.

The Hawai'i Carpenters Union was the first in the industry to start drug-testing employees. Two decades ago, about 30 percent of drug tests came back positive.

These days, it's about 3 to 5 percent, and most of those are from people who have been hired pending the results of their drug test, said Ron Taketa, financial secretary and business representative for the Hawai'i Carpenters Union.

Those already on the job tend to know, "You cannot use drugs and stay within the unionized industry any more," Taketa said. "We've gone a long way of working with our contractors to clean up our industry."

In a saliva test, a cotton swab is rubbed inside the mouth, and results can be available five minutes later.

By comparison, a urinalysis requires the employee to go to a clinical lab, and results could take four hours or more.

Taketa said the new tests will have to be worked into collective bargaining agreements to make sure that no one is penalized for a false-positive saliva screen, meaning that no action will be taken unless a urinalysis confirms the results.

The state Department of Health had some reservations about the new tests, but Lt. Gov. James "Duke" Aiona noted that the results wouldn't be used to demonstrate civil or criminal liability.

"This is something that I think is going to be a great asset for employers, especially in the construction industry where public safety is a huge factor," said Aiona, who signed the measure into law last week while Gov. Linda Lingle was in Indonesia.

Reach Treena Shapiro at tshapiro@honoluluadvertiser.com.