What HR Should Know About Nicotine Testing in the Workplace?

Nicotine Testing

Not all organizations can have a policy of banning the hiring of smokers. In some jurisdictions, it may even be illegal to test job applicants for nicotine.

In the United States, a growing number of employers, which mainly include healthcare service providers, have enacted tobacco-free hiring policies.

If the area where you operate is not bound by smoker-protection laws, your organization can introduce a policy to test job applicants (and your existing workforce) for nicotine.

Here in this post, we will shed light on the 7 most important things that HR leaders and hiring managers should know about nicotine testing in the workplace. Read on.

1. Why Are Employers Conducting Nicotine Testing In the Workplace?

Smoking is not only hazardous to smokers but also to secondhand (or passive) smokers. According to a study conducted by the American Lung Association in 2001, second-hand smoking is a serious health hazard that results in 50,000 deaths in the United States annually. 

Nicotine is a highly addictive substance; in fact, its addictive nature is comparable to that of heroin. Therefore, employers, particularly from the healthcare sector, have valid reasons to take steps to ensure smoke-free workplaces.

2. What Some of the Most Important Facts about Nicotine

Here are some of the most important facts about nicotine that HR professionals responsible for managing nicotine testing programs should know about:

  • One cigarette’s effect can stay in the blood for up to 24 hours, and the effect of nicotine remains in the blood for up to two to three days in heavy smokers
  • The impact of chewing, vaping, cigar, and pipe are more harmful than a cigarette
  • Nicotine is as hard to give up as heroin
  • The use of nicotine can have side effects on hormones, the heart, and the gastrointestinal system
  • Nicotine consumption leads to a slight increase in glucose and blood sugar level

3. How Does Nicotine Testing Work

There are many ways to administer nicotine/cotinine tests with the help of pharmaceutical specialists, doctors, and lab technicians. The two popular nicotine testing methods are:  

  • Qualitative testing: A test is administered to determine whether or not someone has nicotine in their body.
  • Quantitative testing: This nicotine testing method helps determine the exact concentration of nicotine/cotinine in the human body. Thus, it provides detailed information about a person’s tobacco habits. It even indicates whether a person is an active smoker or has recently quit smoking. For nonsmokers, it can indicate if someone has been subject to second-hand smoke.

4. How Long Does Nicotine stay in a Person’s System?

When administering a nicotine test in the workplace, HR professionals must be aware that the detection window for identifying nicotine in the human blood is very short.

Besides nicotine (an active ingredient found in cigarettes) that causes addiction, high-quality nicotine tests focus on detecting cotinine – an important metabolite of nicotine.

Cotinine has a more practical window of detection (around four to seven days). Therefore, it can be used to determine if a person has been smoking during off-duty hours.  

5. What Does the Nicotine Test Determine?

As discussed above, standard nicotine testing is focused on detecting the presence of cotinine and NOT nicotine.

Nicotine tests can be based on analyses of urine, blood or oral specimens.

The blood test is of course the most invasive among all. Most employers prefer oral nicotine testing kits. These kits are easy to use and do not require elaborate arrangements. It’s difficult to adulterate oral swabs.

Standard cotinine oral fluid tests available today can be administered by onsite staff. Such tests have a sensitivity of around 97% and specificity of around 99%.

Nicotine dip tests have a cut-off concentration of 200 ng/ml. For a urine test, a lab technician will take a urine sample of an employee or job applicant at any time of the day. So, it’s slightly more invasive than saliva-based nicotine/cotinine tests.

6. What If A Job Applicant Has Recently Quit Smoking?

If an employee or job applicant has recently quit smoking or any other tobacco product and has been taking some nicotine replacement product, he or she may need to undergo another test to identify the presence of cotinine, nicotine, and anabasine – a compound found in tobacco but not in any other nicotine replacement products.

7. What Happens When an Applicant or Employee Tests Positive

Modern-day nicotine tests offer exceptional accuracy. Many tests can provide results in less than 10 minutes! But, what happens when a job applicant or an existing employee tests positive for nicotine?

The HR department should have a clear tobacco-free policy which states in no unambiguous terms what happens when someone fails a nicotine test.

Disciplinary actions can include:

  • A verbal warning
  • A written notice
  • Fine, if applicable
  • Suspension
  • Termination
  • Encourage an employee to take a smoking cessation program (if it’s a first-time offense) 

HR leaders need to ensure that the policy is implemented across the organization. No exceptions should be made for any job applicant or employee, in order to encourage everyone to follow the company’s tobacco-free workplace policy.

Final Words

A tobacco-free policy can help ensure a safer and healthier workplace. It can also help reduce healthcare costs. Just make sure your company’s tobacco-free policy is in compliance with local and federal laws. When in doubt, be sure to consult an experienced employment attorney.