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Impairment Screening Tools for Contractors

High Tech, High Touch or Both | by ABC Greater Baltimore

By Rita Colorito


A few years ago, Ted Wooden, director of safety and operations at Wilmot Modular, faced a situation many contractors may find themselves in come July 1, when Maryland officially joins 20 other states in legalizing marijuana for recreational use. One of his employees tested positive during random drug testing. But through close observation, Wooden didn’t notice any signs of impairment or problematic behavioral issues. Wooden decided to talk to the worker to figure out what was going on.


“Come to find out, he was at a party two weeks prior and they were smoking marijuana there,” says Wooden. The employee swore that it was his first time using. And Wooden had enough of a rapport with the young man to believe him. But workplace regulations automatically tripped a series of punitive steps that resulted in lost productivity, even though the worker appeared fully functioning that day.


“We actually lost like two weeks of productivity with this one person because, according to our policy, once you fail a test, you can’t come back to work until you can pass that test,” says Wooden. And the employee also had to pay for taking additional tests to prove he was clean up to six months later. “So, it was really expensive for both of us,” says Wooden.


Once marijuana becomes legal, figuring out next steps suddenly becomes much more difficult. The issue: THC, the psychoactive component of marijuana, can be detectable in the body long after initial use. According to the American Addiction Centers, depending on how frequently someone uses marijuana, THC can be detectable up to 30 days in urine. That means urine testing—the most common drug testing tool used by employers—may catch some recreational users in a positive test but who are otherwise fine to be on the job. And now that marijuana use is mainstream—a recent YouGov poll found 52% of Americans have tried it—chances are using will become as normal to some employees as grabbing a cold beer after work or on the weekends.


Getting ahead of the issue

Wooden didn’t want to wait until the challenges were at Wilmot’s doorstep. “When we saw Maryland was going to legalize recreational marijuana, we didn’t want to penalize our workforce. Just because they smoked marijuana on Friday night does not mean next Tuesday or Wednesday that they will still be impaired by it. But if we were to do a typical drug screen, it may still show up,” says Wooden.

To get ahead of the cannabis legalization curve, Wilmot Modular two years ago signed up to take part in a pilot project offered through ABC Greater Baltimore to beta test a new app and cloud-based platform for monitoring workplace safety, both products of Cambridge, Massachusetts-based Impairment Science Inc. Through daily employee use of Impairment Science’s Druid app, the platform can quickly detect and track employee impairment in real time, says Chris Bensley, COO of Impairment Science.


Through an initial series of videogame-like motor and cognitive tasks, the Druid app establishes a baseline for each employee. Employees can’t game or fool the app, says Bensley.


The science-backed test is different every time. There’s also a component to judge balance, where employees must stand on one leg for several seconds. Impairment Science provides guidelines for interpreting the data and suggested next steps.

“When we heard about the Druid app, we found out there’s a lot more things out there that might impair people,” says Wooden. “And this is the best way to figure out if our employees have their head in the game for work that day.”


Ted Wooden checking the Druid scores

“The app can’t tell why someone is impaired, only that they are,” says Bensley. “Impairment can happen for all kinds of reasons. So, it’s really important that contractors have tools to make sure workers are fit for duty. It’s not about catching them doing drugs.”


Catching impairment no matter the cause

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, several everyday issues can cause impairment—all of which are treatable. These include stress, depression, medication side effects, lack of sleep and sleep apnea, even a vitamin B12 deficiency.


During the Druid app beta testing, Wilmot had a crucial project that required employees to work long days and weekends. Wooden could see the effects on the Druid app. “Everybody was working so hard. And because they were so tired, everybody’s score started rising. My score went up, too. That’s when I had like an epiphany, of, wow, this thing really does work,” says Wooden.


To make sure everyone remained focused, Wooden held a team meeting. “I told them I wanted them to come to work well rested. So, if that means going home and going to bed early do whatever you need to do,” he says. “They ended up doing that, and everybody’s scores came back down.”


Wooden decided to stick with the app, which was rolled out for commercial use in May 2022. Every morning either before or during the company’s 7 a.m. “stand-up” safety meeting, Wilmot employees take the one-minute test. If their daily score deviates too widely from their baseline, it’s a basis for a conversation, says Wooden.


During another such conversation, Wooden found an employee was stressed because he was taking care of his girlfriend’s son while she was in the hospital with a serious illness. “The app gives us a reason to talk and get employees to open up about issues that may be impacting them,” says Wooden. “It actually helps me direct them to our other resources, like our EAP program.”


Implementing a holistic approach

The Druid app, and similar high-tech screening tools, are a starting point for helping employers help their employees, says Matt Abeles, ABC National’s vice president of construction technology and innovation. “You need to have purpose-built solutions in place—something to complement and go beyond the data spreadsheets. You have to know how to make data-informed decisions.”


Employers can and should also follow Wooden’s example and use high-touch solutions, says Joe Xavier, ABC National’s senior director of health and safety. One-on-one relationships are important. But supervisors can also be trained on impairment recognition, similar to how they’re trained for U.S. Department of Transportation reasonable suspicion, he says.


“Some companies have well-established daily huddles, stretch and flex or behavior-based safety programs that can be adapted to be a first screen on potential impairment,” says Xavier. “One or all three can be combined to detect when someone is not themselves or potentially impaired. From there, HR policies would dictate how a supervisor handles the next conversation,” says Xavier. Having tough conversations early on, like Wooden’s approach at Wilmot, may also prevent serious health problems in the future.


“Regarding cannabis specifically, there are too many unknowns and the risk is too high for recreational users who may not be aware of the dose, potency or the length of impairment it may cause,” says Xavier. “Education, enhanced employee assistance programs and early intervention are the keys to prevent recreational cannabis use from developing into substance use disorder. For some people, knowing that their employer cares enough to use high tech, high touch or both, can make that difference.”


Sidebox: High-Tech Tools

Looking for some high-tech impairment screening tools for your safety toolkit? Here are a few to consider:

  • Druid app applies neuroscience to assess a user’s level of cognitive and motor impairment compared to the individual’s previously established baseline. The app can’t determine the cause of impairment, just that there is impairment. www.impairmentscience.com

  • Sober Eye uses pupil response to light in determining impairment level. It also measures the person against their own baseline. It can’t determine the cause of the impairment, just that there is impairment. www.soberye.us

  • IMMAD is another tech involving eyes but more on visual functionality. While designed for roadside testing by law enforcement, it might be adaptable for workplace impairment evaluation. www.immadroadside.com

Sidebox: We Want To Hear From You

ABC actively lobbied members of the Maryland General Assembly this past session on how critically important it is that employers retain the ability to maintain drug-free job sites. After several rounds of hearings and in conversations with the bill’s sponsors, ABC was given assurance that the bill’s language allows employers to test employees for substance use and alcohol use and remove them from the job if it is determined they are impaired. That said, it is reasonable to expect that at some point that this could be legally challenged by someone who had been removed from a project.


We would love to hear your questions, comments and concerns on this issue. Please email Mike Henderson at mhenderson@abcbaltimore.org. Your feedback will help us if it becomes necessary to go back to the legislature to clarify guidelines for employers.


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