AUGUSTA — An employee of a southern Maine manufacturing facility was a problem.

He repeatedly showed up late for work. After being warned, he was eventually fired, then proceeded to sue the company. Why? Because the company, in his estimation, failed to make accommodations for his marijuana addiction, which, he alleged, contributed to his tardiness.

At this same company, another employee was confronted by management about coming back from lunch high.

According to the business’ owner, who testified recently before the Legislature’s Labor, Commerce, Research and Economic Development Committee, that worker stated, “Well, I may have been stoned this morning, but I ran the machine fine!”

Then there was the worker who was rumored to be mixing her oatmeal with methamphetamine during her company breaks.

All of these incidents happened at a business that uses heavy machinery to make its products. Even with all of the built-in safeguards, operating this equipment requires attention to detail and a clear state of mind, both of which are compromised by being under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

A mishap can lead to a serious injury, or even death to the impaired worker or one more of his or her coworkers. There is also the risk of the company’s losing money on the expensive machinery that needs to be repaired or replaced.

These stories all underscore why employers want to conduct workplace drug testing.

However, Maine’s drug-testing law, which is more than 20 years old, has failed to keep pace with the realities of today’s society and the challenges employers face to maintain a safe workplace.

But a bill submitted recently by state Sen. Andre Cushing, R-Hampden, would change that.

Under current law, Maine businesses that decide to test employees must craft their own drug-testing policy, which, in turn, must be approved by the Maine Department of Labor.

Sen. Cushing’s bill, L.D. 1669, submitted on behalf of the Labor Department, seeks to create a standardized drug-testing policy for use by any Maine company that has 50 or more employees or has a collective bargaining agreement and chooses to have such a policy.

“As it stands now, there is a lack of consistency when it comes to drug testing in Maine,” Sen. Cushing says. “It’s a mishmash of policies that vary from company to company, which results in confusion for workers, those who administer the testing. And current law creates undue paperwork for small businesses. We need to have a single standard so that employees know that the same rules apply when they go to work at any company that requires drug testing.”

This bill also seeks to strengthen the probable cause standard for those businesses that have drug-testing policies.

Currently, under Maine law, a company is not allowed to conduct drug testing following a first-time workplace incident involving a worker – such as an accident that leads to injury or property damage. The testing can only occur only if there are two or more workplace incidents in which substance abuse is suspected as a contributing factor.

Maine is one of a few states to have such a lenient standard. L.D. 1669 would drop the threshold for probable cause to one incident.

“The goal here is to ensure that we have a drug-testing system in place that protects the safety of our workers and our employers. L.D. 1669 would have the effect of encouraging more employers to adopt a drug-testing program,” Sen. Cushing says.

This past week, the Legislature’s Labor, Commerce, Research and Economic Development Committee voted on L.D. 1669, approving the “ought not to pass” report 7-6. Those who voted against these common-sense measures cited concerns over workers’ privacy rights.

We believe this is shortsighted. Workers who go off to their jobs each day should expect to come back home that night. They have an expectation that their workplace will be safe, and employers have upheld their end of that expectation.

But shouldn’t they also expect that the person working next to them isn’t working impaired – and their action won’t result in their being injured, or even killed? Of course they should. L.D. 1669 is really a small step, but it would go a long way toward achieving this and, for the first time, establish a clear, statewide standard that would clear up the ambiguity surrounding drug testing in Maine.

— Special to the Press Herald