Minnesota and Wisconsin MCA and UA groups first to take statewide initiative.

Minnesota and Wisconsin took the first statewide initiative June 1 to perform random drug testing on union plumbers, steam fitters and sprinkler fitters. The programs are expected to increase workplace quality and productivity and decrease workplace accidents and insurance costs.

In Minnesota, the Minnesota Pipe Trades Association (MPTA), which represents more than 6,100 union employees, and the Minnesota Mechanical Contractors Association (MMCA), serving more than 130 signatory contractors, jointly have committed to the program. In Wisconsin, the Wisconsin Pipe Trades Association (WPTA), representing 7,300-plus union employees, and the Mechanical Contractors Association of Wisconsin (MCAW), representing more than 500 signatory contractors, also jointly agreed to the plan.

Some contractors and employees, however, question the program's infringement on their right to privacy. Although a minority has reacted negatively to management's proactive attempt to counter substance abuse, the majority will comply with the new regulations, according to Gary Hammen, president of the Wisconsin Pipe Trades Association.

"There's been a small amount of disgruntled members who don't like any kind of testing or restrictions at any time, ever," Hammen said. "The feedback I've gotten is that most will take the initial test without any resistance."

The drug-testing program, paid for by contractors, consists of an initial drug screening and then subsequent random checks for employee drug and alcohol use. Employees also must take the test after work-related accidents. Reports of drug traces or a blood alcohol content exceeding .08 will result in a referral.

The program's goal is to rehabilitate substance abusers, not fire them, according to J.L. Williams, director of safety programs for the MMCA. If rehabilitation is necessary, union employees' health benefits will assist with the cost, although pay is lost while undergoing treatment. All employees are compensated for time spent submitting drug-test samples.

The program's benefits should manifest in lower workers' compensation claims. The National Council on Compensation Claims estimated 38 percent to 50 percent of all workers' compensation claims involve substance abuse. In 1999, MCAW's average compensation claim rated at $14,457 per person. Per employee, the substance abuse testing program is expected to cost $76 the first year and $46 in subsequent years in Wisconsin. After the program is implemented, total health and workers' compensation insurance savings are estimated at $560 to $1,120 per employee.

Pipe trades employees are the only union workers who have to submit to testing at this time, but it is more a reflection of their inherently hazardous profession than an indication of excessive drug abuse, according to Williams.

"We don't believe the pipe trades have any more of a problem than anywhere else in the country," Williams said. "This [program] is in response to working in an industry where companies want to feel confident there are drug-free employees on the site. That's why the United Association and Mechanical Contractors Association got together to initiate a proactive approach and stay ahead of the curve."

Minnesota and Wisconsin are the first two states to implement mandatory statewide testing, but the program has existed for years in some cities and regions. For example, the St. Louis area under the Mechanical Contractors Association of Eastern Missouri has been using a random drug-testing program for its employees since 1995, with much acclaim. The group has an overall positive test rate of 2.7 percent. Wisconsin is heading toward the same success rate, with only two of 90 contractors failing the initial screening as of late June.

True randomness and frequency is the key to the program's success in St. Louis, according to John Siscel, executive vice president of the MCA of Eastern Missouri.

"The thing that makes a drug policy really worthwhile is the fact you have random tests after the initial one," Siscel said.

Steven Gleason, executive director of Construction Data Services, which helps operate the program in Eastern Missouri, said the most notable benefits have been safer jobsites and lower workers' compensation rates. So far, about 2,000 union employees have been tested under its program.

"The unions are participating 100 percent," Gleason said. "It's a joint effort by everyone, and it's been running smoothly since we implemented it."