Sunshine streams through big windows into a spotless waiting room. I remove my jacket and place it on a chair next to carefully arranged magazines. My first impression is of a modern doctor’s office, but without the coughing, sniffling and smell of antiseptic. At reception, my occupational tester, Michael, greets me with a smile and some paper work. It lists all the tests I ordered when I booked a pre-employment test appointment the week before: a 5-panel drug test, alcohol test, fitness-to-work test, audiometric screen, spirometry test and mask fit. The questionnaire gathers a sense of my capabilities and limitations - Am I comfortable in confined spaces? With height? Do I have a heart condition? - Seemingly, all good things for an employer to know before he or she hires me.
Workplace testing seems like a sensible thing to do, but is surprisingly not a best practice for all North American companies. In the U.S., the Americans with Disabilities Act (1990) protects employees against any drug and alcohol testing that might be perceived as discriminatory. In Canada, and specifically Alberta (where I'm taking my tests), although companies have drug and alcohol policies in place, writing certain kinds of testing, in particular random testing, into a company policy is often stalemated, as seen in the case of energy giant, Suncor.
This morning, I have come to entertain my curiosity about the workplace testing process at SureHire Occupational Testing, a company with national reach, based out of my home city, Edmonton. Why do employers invest in pre-employment and annual testing? What is the purpose of each of the tests? Is it privacy invasive? I was about to find out.
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Types of Workplace Testing
There are usually two types of candidates that visit a facility like this one: private candidates, like myself, and employer-requested candidates, usually booked in the recruitment process by an HR professional. Third-party administrators (TPA) like SureHire provide many types of non-biased tests. Pre-employment is a big one. Employers are made aware of my physical capabilities to ensure they match the bona fide occupational testing requirements of the job I am applying for. They also test for potential drug dependencies. If employees are heading onto a safety-sensitive site, they get pre-access testing. Other types of testing, such as reasonable suspicion, random, post-incident testing and return-to-work are self-explanatory tests also performed by a TPA and requested by employers. A workplace testing clinic can also complete drug testing for court cases.
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The Workplace Testing Process
After signing a form to ensure my privacy is respected - and giving full consent to those who will have access to my results - I am given a key for a locker where I place my belongings. The occupational tester asks me to lift my pant legs and the bottom of my sweater to ensure I am not toting any sample-tampering substances.
The drug test involves providing a urine sample. Urine testing is the most commonly used drug test because of its flexibility, its cost-effectiveness, and the fact that it can detect a multitude of drugs. I opt for the 5-panel, which tests for cocaine, THC, PCP (Phencyclidine), Opiates (codeine and morphine), and amphetamines. A 7-panel adds oxycodone and methamphetamines and a 12-panel includes all of the above plus Benzodiazepines, Barbiturates, Propoxyphene, Methadone and Fentanyl. In the one-stall bathroom, Micheal hands me my toilet paper and steps outside. If I flush or run water in the sink, the test will be rendered invalid.
The alcohol test is a simple breathalyzer test, taking less than a minute to complete. Although I have never experienced a road-side test, I imagine this to be much like what cops administer at a check stop.
The fitness-to-work test is up next. Fitness-to-work, for many companies, is an extension of the orientation process, testing a candidate to ensure they are physically capable to do the job they were hired to do. Emily, my medical assessor, takes my medical history, and performs a musculoskeletal exam, testing for range of motion and strength. (Medical assessors have rehabilitation backgrounds and are trained physio therapists, chiropractors, or athletic therapists.) When her assessment is complete, my information is reviewed by a second set of eyes to determine my physical functionality. I am then given a rating on a scale of one to five. If I am a one, I will be considered fully functional, able to complete all aspects of a position without concern. A four signifies someone who should be in a sedentary job due to a medical condition or present injury. A five is considered a safety concern on the job site.
As I divulge my every surgery, ailment and sickness, I’m curious to know whether my medical history will be shared with my future employer. In some cases, only the rating is provided to determine what position is a good fit. Depending on the company, and in the case of a claim, an HR professional and/or health and safety officer becomes privy to medical information.
It is while sitting inside the booth for the audiometric screen, where all sound is dampened and you can hear your own thoughts, that I start to see the big picture - why employers invest in workplace testing. I listen for different pitches and tones at different frequencies to collect my baseline level of hearing for future comparison and think about my Saturday night spent in a loud venue, wondering if years of live bands and headphones have taken their toll. The fragility of our senses is not lost on me at that moment, and it occurs to me that these tests, in their proactive approach, are doing me a great service - saving something that once damaged, cannot be repaired.
Next up, the spirometry test. It measures my lung function and the volume of air I am able to inhale, then exhale. I get five tries, thankfully, because I fail the first three. The occupational tester coaches me through, breathing with me, then cheering me on to push on the exhale until the spirometer beeps and has collected the data it needs. The test is a monitoring tool to determine, again, an individual’s baseline lung function for future comparison, important information to have if I were to, say, work on a site where there is hazardous material, such as silica or asbestos. It can also detect breathing obstruction, taking into consideration if I am a smoker or suffer from a lung disorder, such as COPD or asthma.
In the mask fit test, I don a half-mask to determine model number, fit factor, style, brand and size of mask I would need in the case I was on a site where harmful agents, H2S gas, for example, are present. Pre-employment and pre-access testing can also include full-mask and STBA (self-contained breathing apparatus) fittings depending on the job description.
The spirometry test and mask fit solidify the benefit of that pro-active approach to hiring. I was suddenly aware of the great responsibility of employers to do everything they can to prevent injury and the onset of chronic ailments on their worksites.
After two hours, I gather my belongings from the locker and receive a piece of paper with a username and passcode to access my results when they show up in my inbox that afternoon. I open an easy-to-read document, and see that there is a live chat if I have any questions about my results. All tests were deemed normal and negative, and, as it turns out, I am fit for a sedentary job. I guess, I’ll stick to my keyboard and wordsmithing.
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