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Instant Drug Testing versus Laboratory Testing at a Workplace: How Do They Compare?

The much-awaited 2016 report on the latest substance abuse trends in the U.S. reveals that nearly 29 million Americans are dealing with drug addiction and a huge proportion of this group are employed. Drug abuse at workplace increases the employee absenteeism and the risk of accidents, violence, and crime, pulling down the overall employee productivity and adversely affecting the organization's bottom line.

Workplace drug screening is emerging as a critical risk management tool, enabling employers to foster a safe and productive work environment. In recent times, instant and lab-based drug testing are the two commonly used techniques available for workplace drug screening.

When employing a drug screening program at your workplace, several questions may come to your mind with respect to choosing the most suitable option for your particular business. This article will discuss each category, namely instant and lab-based drug testing in detail along with their benefits and pitfalls, enabling you to make the most appropriate workplace safety decision.

Instant Drug Tests

How Instant Drug Testing Works?

The instant or rapid drug testing process (also referred to as a point of collection testing or POCT) provides employers a convenient way to test for illicit drug abuse at the workplace, offering reliable results within minutes. The drug test can be performed using instant drug test kits either at the collection site or at the workplace.

Though there are two types of instant drug tests, namely urine and saliva, the former is more accurate as drugs tend to remain in the urine for over a month versus two to three days in the saliva. In each of these tests, the samples are collected by the administrator and results are obtained instantly.

For instance, the urine sample is collected using a urine cup, which is sealed after sample collection. Within a few minutes, the results can be viewed on the multi-colored panels on the outside of these testing cups. Most of these cups have a set threshold to detect up to sixteen different types of drugs in the system. When the threshold for a particular drug is reached, it indicates a positive result.

Before administrating instant drug tests, it is important for organizations to understand its pros and cons, enabling them to determine whether it is the most suitable method of testing drug abuse in the workplace.


1. Has a Short Turnaround Time

In instant drug testing, the administrator merely uses the available drug-testing kit to determine the results within minutes. For instance, in pre-employment screening, the 5-panel quick test kits enable employers to instantly detect five drugs, namely cocaine, amphetamine/ methamphetamine, opiates, phencyclidine (PCP), and tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), averting the need for making an additional trip to the laboratory. The short turnaround time of rapid testing proves to be ideal for safety-sensitive occupations such as construction, manufacturing, energy, and transportation.

2. Offers Reliable Results

The instant drug testing kits strictly follow the cut-off levels mandated by Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). Moreover, the on-site sample collection and testing eliminates the risk of donor tampering. Consequently, the results acquired through instant drug testing are accurate and reliable.

3. Enables On-Site Testing

The rapid drug-testing kits can be used at the collection site or at the workplace where all the potential candidates or the employees to be screened are gathered. Thus, the sample can be collected and tested on the spot versus relying on every candidate or employee to visit the lab, making the process of hiring easy and quick and reducing the downtime for the employees.

4. Is Cost-Effective

The easy-to-use instant drug testing kits make on-site testing possible, reducing the overall lab infrastructure and utility costs. Thus, instant drug testing costs are considerably lesser in comparison to the laboratory drug testing.


1. Cannot Be Used in the Court of Law

The instant drug test reports aren't admissible in the court. If there is a case of violence or crime due to drug abuse at the workplace, the jury will ask for a detailed drug report with specific drug levels which is not available with instant drug testing. Moreover, the Department of Transportation (DOT) doesn't recognize instant drug testing results.

2. Failed Tests Need Confirmation

In order to avoid the risk of false-positive results, non-negative results need to be confirmed by re-testing the sample in a controlled environment such as a laboratory.

3. Drug-Testing Responsibility Lies Solely with the Employer

Since the drug screening is being conducted in-house, the professional and legal responsibility for accurate testing lies solely with the employer, increasing the risk of complaints pertaining to drug test bias and lawsuits.

Laboratory Drug Tests

How Laboratory Drug Testing Works?

Laboratory drug testing is the standard method used by a majority of companies for random as well as pre-employment drug screening programs, enabling employers to reduce workplace accidents and absenteeism and improve job productivity.

In this process, the lab technicians collect the samples, test them in a controlled environment, and provide the reports to the employer. Laboratory test results usually take longer than the standard turnaround time of 24 hours. However, several employers prefer waiting for the lab results before hiring the candidates as laboratory test reports can be presented as a valid evidence in the court of law in case of crime incidents or accidents related to workplace drug abuse.


1. Reports Can Be Presented in the Court of Law

Lab-based tests are recommended by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) and the Department of Transportation (DOT) for illicit drug screening at a workplace. Moreover, expert witnesses, namely the laboratory technicians and the Medical Review Officers are a part of the drug-testing process. Thus, the drug test reports from the certified laboratories can be presented as evidence in the court of law.

2. Uses Standard Testing Methods and Cut-Off Levels

All SAMHSA laboratories use certified drug testing techniques and DHHS-approved cut-off levels that are based on scientific studies. These tests and levels are designed to reduce the risk of false positives as in the cases of passive inhalation, medications, and exposure to abuse. Consequently, the lab-based drug testing method is considered as the gold standard for testing drug abuse in situations that are not time-critical.

3. Offers Accurate and Reliable Results

Lab-based drug tests use scientific methods such as gas chromatography and mass spectrometry to detect the levels of drugs in the samples. Moreover, they offer added security as the non-negative results are tested for the second time to offer confirmed results. Thus, a lab-based drug test is considered to be reliable and accurate.


1. High Cost

Lab-based drug testing involves a variety of costs, namely the lab technician wages, the cost of the reagents and the laboratory supplies, and the equipment and the service costs. Though the costs may vary for each lab, the overall cost of testing is higher in comparison to instant drug testing.

2. Has an Increased Turnaround Time

For most laboratories, the mean wait time for results is between 24 hours and 48 hours after submitting the sample. In case of positive results, the turnaround time may go up to 72 hours.

3. Is Associated with an Increased Risk of Donor Tampering or Adulteration

This is extremely common in case of a urine drug test. The participants may substitute, dilute, or add chemicals that can alter the composition of the sample, enabling them to test negative.

Time and accuracy of results are often the most important factors to consider when choosing between rapid and lab-based drug tests. Though rapid drug tests can be used to instantly determine whether a drug is being abused, a lab-based test can offer you detailed and empiric data on the same.

Moreover, the company's safety policies and the nature of the industry will play a critical role in determining which test is best suitable to make the workplace drug free. For instance, in the construction industry, instant drug tests at regular intervals may be sufficient to screen potential candidates and current employees, assuring that the job is being done safely.

On the other hand, a rehabilitation center may have to rely on a comprehensive drug screening program involving both instant and lab-based drug tests in order to test for a wide range of drugs along with the precise levels.

An organization can choose the type of drug test that best suits the workplace safety goals based on the information shared in this post.

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