Pittsburgh Business Times : Pittsburgh region's building-trade unions get unified drug testing

Reporter-Pittsburgh Business Times

The region’s building-trade unions launched a unified drug-testing program April 1 covering all 17 organized labor groups.

The program, which will incorporate screening for prescription drug abuse, is designed to help ensure a drug-free workforce in the region.

“The FirstEnergys, the Chevrons … are requiring absolute safety,” said Jason Fincke, executive director of the Builders Guild of Western Pennsylvania. “They are requiring comprehensive drug screening and, for the first time, all of our programs will have the same panels.”

That means members who choose to participate will be tested annually and carry a card testifying they passed. In addition, about 25 percent of participants will be randomly tested each year, and more often if companies request it, said Bob McCall, safety director at Master Builders’ Association of Western Pennsylvania Inc.

The program is voluntary, but in order to work for any contractor in the MBA or any industrial client, drug testing will be a must. Opportunities outside of that set are very limited, McCall said.

About 10 years ago, utilities and large industrial clients spurred local contractors and labor unions to begin routinely drug testing their workforce — a trend that spread to smaller owners and is now an industry staple.

Now, “it’s like wearing a hard hat,” McCall said.

Drug abuse rates have come down significantly on building trade union jobs in southwestern Pennsylvania to about 1 percent. When the MBA first started testing workers in 1999, the rate was between 5 percent and 8 percent, McCall said. The national average then was about 15 percent.

Cindy Latsko, president and CEO of Mobile Medical Corp., which performs the tests for the building trades, said the annual positive rate is about 4 percent and a “little bit higher” for random tests.

In Pennsylvania, when someone in the construction business tests positive, the top culprits are marijuana and cocaine, Latsko said. That’s a regional profile. In California and Las Vegas, for example, crystal meth is No. 1.

Prescription drugs do appear from time to time, but “they’re not prevalent,” Latsko said.

The draw of the burgeoning shale-gas sector played a part in shaping the program, McCall said. One of the most common complaints from oil and gas companies is it’s hard to find drug-free labor.

When Greg DeFeo, president of Pittsburgh Technical Institute, invited a group of oil and gas leaders to identify gaps in the workforce last month, he learned that half of their applicants either skip or fail the drug test.

But “it’s not just the oil and gas and industrials,” McCall said. “We’re seeing it from UPMC and a lot of the private owners that are coming into town. It’s become a way of life.”

The cost of adding prescription drugs into the test increases it from $44 per person to between $45 and $47. Contractors and unions foot the bill.

Darlaine Taylor, vice president of Century Steel Erectors, said the unified drug-testing program removes the responsibility and the administrative burden of having to test workers when they arrive on site.

“I can call the union hall and request employees to come to our job,” and they will be ready to work — no further testing needed, Taylor said.

The building trades in southwestern Pennsylvania have between 15,000 and 20,000 members.



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