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Purpose of a Lab Drug and Alcohol Screen

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Medical technicians performing a gc ms lab drug test

Companies will typically employ a lab drug and alcohol screen as a follow-up test or for specific cases and contexts. This specificity is because lab tests, which usually involve gas chromatography-mass spectrometry (GC-MS), take longer and cost more than rapid drug and alcohol screening methods. Lab screenings can check for various substances using various samples. In addition, the testing process is more rigorous and comprehensive. Therefore, lab screening tests take 2-3 days on average for a result. 

This article will go over how laboratory drug and alcohol testing work, their effectiveness and what they can detect. Drug and alcohol abuse remains a significant problem today, leading to many hazards on the road and in the workplace. Companies may employ lab screenings as part of a comprehensive drug and alcohol testing policy. Such measures help keep the workplace safe and healthy and avoid the hazards of drug and alcohol abuse. 

Lab Drug and Alcohol Screenings – Overview

A lab drug and alcohol screening may analyse different biological samples for traces of alcohol or illicit substances. For instance, a urine test may contain metabolites that the body produces as it breaks down alcohol. Meanwhile, a blood sample can trace the parent drug or alcohol. Moreover, most laboratory drug screenings require two to three days for results. Furthermore, if an on-site test in certain screenings produces a positive result, it is sent to a lab for further testing.

Laboratory tests will produce a more accurate result compared to a rapid test. This is because they may run the samples through a GC-MS and refer to standard cut-offs for detecting substances. The results will confirm if a drug or its metabolite is present within the sample. It can also report if the concentration is therapeutic or recreational. Thus, laboratory testing will produce fewer false-positive results than a rapid test.

If an illicit substance or its metabolite is absent or the concentration is below the detection level,  a lab will confirm a negative result. However, if the substance concentration is above the cut-off level, it is a positive result. This accuracy allows for a lab drug and alcohol screening to consider certain factors glossed over by a rapid test, such as the presence of medications or if they have certain conditions like diabetes. 

False Positives and the Necessity of a Lab Test

  • A subject who has recently taken Panadeine Forte to treat a headache will most likely be positive for opiates, but a lab test will confirm that the concentration is in the therapeutic range.
  • Pre-workout powders may confirm positive for amphetamines in rapid tests.
  • Codral Cold and Flu may confirm positive for methamphetamine. 

gc ms test using urine sample for drug testing

Lab Drug and Alcohol Screenings – GC-MS Testing

Gas chromatography and mass spectrometry (GC/MS) is the most powerful tool for lab drug and alcohol screening. A GC-MS distinguishes complex chemicals in water and air and, in doing so, determines the specific amount of each chemical in a sample. As a result, many experts consider the GC-MS drug test the gold standard in drug testing. A medical technician typically runs a urine sample through a GC-MS lab test to determine the presence of illicit substances. 

GC-MS tests typically use a gas carrier medium to separate compounds in urine. The gas vaporises the sample leaving a substance behind. Mass spectrometry classifies the ions in their mass-to-charge ratio. These aid in identifying volatile or unfamiliar compounds in specific contexts. This precision means a GC-MC test is not just useful for drug and alcohol testing but forensic science as well. However, a GC-MS drug test is very costly and may take days to produce a result. 

A lab drug and alcohol screen utilising GC-MS may perform any type like single quadrupole, triple quadruple, and HRAM GC-MS testing. Thus, it is very costly and time to produce results. In addition, workplaces use them sparingly in drug and alcohol testing. For instance, it is vital in a post-incident test requiring high accuracy to assess the involvement of illicit drugs or alcohol.

Pros and Cons of a GC-MS Drug Test

Pros:

  • Highly accurate for detecting a variety of substances
  • Very precise in detecting specific substances
  • Few chances of false positive and false negative results. 

Cons:

  • Very costly to implement
  • Requires complex apparatus operated by a skilled technician
  • Results are only available after 24 to 72 hours

an employer shaking hands with a new recruit

 

Lab Drug and Alcohol Screenings and The Workplace

Employers are legally obligated to protect the health and safety of their employees. Thus, a comprehensive drug and alcohol policy in the workplace is one of the most effective means of deterring the hazards of illicit substances and alcohol abuse at work. A lab drug and alcohol screening is essential to an effective testing program. These policies will outline when a comprehensive procedure is necessary.

However, a laboratory drug and alcohol procedure may not be beneficial for large-scale testing, such as a blanket test. This is because the test is costly and requires a trained medical professional to administer it. Therefore, companies usually apply them as a confirmation test to confirm a rapid test with positive results. Validating an initial screening is vital to eliminate the likelihood of false positives or negatives. A lab test may confirm if the initial results are correct and reliable. 

To summarise, a more comprehensive lab drug and alcohol screen is a suitable supplement to any workplace drug and alcohol testing policy. It may confirm results after employees fail a breathalyser or urine test. Lab tests are primarily used in specific testing situations, such as a post-accident test in the investigation of an incident or a post-rehabilitation return to work test for workers with a history of illicit substance usage. 

Workplace Situations for Lab Drug and Alcohol tests.

  • Reasonable Suspicion or for-cause testing – companies apply these tests for suspected users in the workforce. The investigations require only the highest accuracy and evidence to avoid any legal trouble 
  • Return to Work or Post-treatment testing  – to check if a returning worker has completed their rehabilitation
  • Post-incident testing – for investigation of possible substance use

Conclusion

To conclude, lab drug and alcohol screening tests are highly accurate methods of detecting drug and alcohol use over a long period of time. Furthermore, these tests produce fewer false positives and negatives than rapid test kits. In addition, comprehensive laboratory tests can cover a broad range of substances over a more extended detection range. If necessary, a GC-MS lab test is employed if the situation requires evidence and a test of the utmost accuracy. 

Furthermore, a laboratory drug and alcohol procedure is best applied in companies with a comprehensive testing policy in place. As lab tests are costly, companies must ensure to use them in specific circumstances to take advantage of their accuracy fully. Therefore, companies can monitor the workplace effectively. These situations usually involve investigating an incident or when there is reasonable suspicion to test and all the protocols have been followed.

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