Illicit drug abuse in the workplace can not only place employees at risk but it can also lower the productivity of the workplace, leading to decreased profits. According to the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, approximately 70% of the estimated 14.8 million Americans who use illegal drugs are working. That means over 10 million employees are drug users. The most commonly abused drug in the workplace is marijuana, followed by cocaine, and prescription drugs. Furthermore, approximately 20 million employees in the United States are screened each year for illicit drugs. Unfortunately, for as long as there has been drug testing, employees have been constantly trying to cheat their way to a "drug free" test result. Here is a look at the most common ways workers try to cheat drug testing.

Top 3 Ways People try to Cheat a Drug Test

There are three primary ways employees can try to cheat a drug test. As a urine point of collection test is most common (such as a 5 panel test), the most common cheating attempt methods are: dilution, substitution, and adulteration.

1. Diluting a Urine Sample

The diluted urine specimen will have a higher than average water content. Prior to drug testing, employees may over-consume large volumes of water or directly add pure water to their urine specimen. The main aim of diluting the urine sample is to minimize the levels of drugs visible in the urine in hopes the percentage will fall below the cut off level (Learn more in Drug Detection Cutoffs: What You Need to Know). This may in theory work since laboratories have a specific cut off point for the level of particular drugs. Therefore, even if small amounts of a drug are detected, the result could be considered to be negative due to the minute amount of the drug present in the urine sample. Unfortunately for the potential cheaters, laboratories know to look out for diluted urine samples. The tampered with urine sample often appears clear in color and other tests such as temperature and water content tests are carried out to verify sample validity so that diluted samples are rejected.

2. Substituting the Urine Sample

Substituting a urine sample occurs when the employee provides a urine sample that did not originate from his/her body. Available on various unscrupulous sites are dehydrated urine powder, liquid urine, and synthetic urine. Some employees may also try to substitute their urine sample with another person’s (usually a family member or friend's) or even that of their pets! It is a common myth that dog urine may be substituted to pass a drug test. The laboratory can easily tell the difference in human and animal urine, flagging the sample. Substitute urine and synthetic urine are also detectable through various methods such as temperature checks and specific gravity checks.

3. Adulteration

Adulteration refers to a urine sample that has been tampered with. This is achieved by adding chemicals to the urine sample, which can have either one of two functions. Firstly, the added chemicals may mask the presence of the drug. Secondly, the added chemicals may interfere with the laboratory equipment. Some examples of available adulterants include:

  • Stealth (peroxidase and peroxide)
  • Klear (nitrite)
  • Clean ADD-IT-ive (glutaraldehyde)
  • Urine Luck (pyridinium chlorochromate [PCC])

Household chemicals can also be used as urinary adulterants. These include: acid, lye, ammonia, and vinegar. These products alter the pH (acidity or alkalinity) of the urine sample and typically are added to the sample when the donor is providing the sample. While household adulterants can be easily detected in the laboratory, resulting in the urine sample being flagged as adulterated, commercially available adulterants are much more difficult to detect. This is due to the fact that the manufacturers of these products continue to develop new products and formulas to bypass laboratory detection procedures.

The Odds of Getting Caught

Adulteration is a common practice among drug users because it had a fairly high success rate years ago. Now, however, laboratories are carrying out an additional set of steps, up to a full and microscopic testing of urine to test urine samples to better detect if they have been adulterated or otherwise tampered with. These lab tests measure characteristics such as creatinine levels, pH, specific gravity, and temperature. Split specimen collection allows for testing for validity and drug use. Moreover, if it is difficult to obtain a definite positive or negative result, then the donor are asked to submit another urine sample under direct supervision.

This gives rise to the second point; safeguards. Safeguards such as direct supervision also exist at the site of urine collection. Other safeguard strategies include:

  • Not allowing employees into the bathroom with coats or bags, which can be used to conceal adulterants
  • Dying the bathroom water blue so it can not to be used to dilute urine
  • Remove soaps and cleaners from the bathroom so they may not be used as adulterants
  • Ensuring that employees thoroughly was their hands before entering the bathroom
  • Implementing a time limit, usually 3 minutes in which employees must provide the urine sample

While not foolproof by any means, the numbers of successful cheating attempts is dropping as technology continues to improve and more employers become increasingly vigilant about combating cheating. As more detailed testing continues,invalid drug test result cases are likely to rise.

Precautionary Measures to Prevent Cheating

Employers today understand that a drug testing program that ignores cheating attempts is as bad as, if not worse than, no drug testing program. With regards to drug testing, cheating is a natural response by some employees. Here are a few simple yet effective precautionary measures employers can implement to help prevent employees from successfully attempting to cheat on drug tests (Learn more in The Importance of a Good Drug and Alcohol Policy in the Workplace):

  • Conduct random, unannounced drug testing
  • If you policy allows, use different testing methods, for instance, instead of constantly testing urine, occasionally test hair or saliva samples
  • Monitor employees’ check in times at collection sites
  • Invite collectors to come to the workplace to collect specimens

Consequences of Cheating

Under the United States Department of Transportation (DOT) regulations, if a DOT covered employee’s urine sample has been found to be adulterated and the employee can not prove to the Medical Review Officer this is an error, that urine sample is reported as a verified refusal to test and loss of job may result. For non-DOT covered employees, while they are not subjected to the same regulations, they may also be removed from their job positions depending on the written policies of their employer.