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Office swabs tell drug use tales

On a recent evening after most workers had gone home from Robert M. Sides Inc., a music company in Williamsport, Pa., three men went through the offices testing for the presence of drugs.

They brushed a narrow plastic tool that resembles a home-pregnancy test across telephone receivers, computer keyboards, doorknobs, armrests and a coffeepot handle.

Like forensics experts at a crime scene, the men worked quietly, while Alysha Sides, the company's marketing director and a co-owner, stood by. When one test came up positive for cannabis, showing a faint red line that signaled the presence of the drug.

"This has given us a great opportunity to get a sneak peek at what's going on," she said.

That peek represents a new twist in screening employees, a process that has been stepped up at many companies since Sept. 11, 2001. While some big employers, such as Home Depot Inc., require pre-employment drug tests of all new employees, many businesses are reluctant to screen current workers by requiring a urine sample _ presenting a perfect opportunity for Global Detection & Reporting Inc.

Based in New York, Global Detection markets the drug wipe test used by Robert M. Sides and more than 100 other small employers in the past year. Since the drug wipe isn't normally used to pinpoint individual usage, Global Detection says it is less invasive. It is also less costly than traditional drug testing.

Global Detection says it costs employers $10 per employee for a "general assessment" of an office, testing for the presence of five drugs, including cannabis and cocaine. By comparison, a urine test performed by a laboratory to determine if an individual has recently used drugs is typically about $35.

Legal experts say workers would have little recourse against such testing, just as they can't stop a company from accessing e-mails written on a company computer.

"Anything that's in the workplace is fair game for a company," said Lawrence Lorber, a partner in the labor and employment practice group in the Washington office of New York law firm Proskauer Rose LLP.

The drug wipe test works by collecting minute amounts of drugs secreted by the skin. Since trace amounts of drugs are commonly passed on such items as dollar bills, the tool is calibrated to register amounts large enough to come from usage or direct handling. In the United States, the test, which is made by Securetec Contraband Detection & Identification Inc. of Williamsport, Pa., is widely used by law enforcement agencies, including some 1,000 state and local groups, the FBI and Customs.

Using the test could prove tricky for many employers who want to zero in on workers whom they suspect of using drugs. For one thing, a single drug wipe test is typically used to test several work spaces. In addition, even if a phone or keyboard tests positive for drugs, testing the surface alone doesn't rule out contamination from another person.

Kevin Brodsky, president of Buchanan Brodsky Enterprises Inc., a Sarasota company that operates 19 car dealerships and has a staff of about 1,000, has taken the drug wipe test beyond testing surfaces and now spot tests employees.

Six months ago, Brodsky suspected that an employee in the finance department at one dealership was using cocaine, even though the employee had passed a laboratory drug test. One day, he called the employee into his office while the employee's office was tested with a drug wipe.

When the employee was shown a positive reading, he confessed that he was using cocaine and that he had previously substituted another urine sample for his own. The employee agreed to enter a rehabilitation program, and Brodsky later rehired him as a salesperson.

Not long after, Brodsky bought a box of drug wipes for himself. Now he tests that employee once a week by rubbing a drug wipe across the employee's forehead.

"It's a pretty neat technology," Brodsky said. "If I see somebody who gets in an accident or is acting weird, I can test them right there."