Employers Do Not Have An Automatic Right To Conduct Post-Injury Drug Tests

There’s a common perception that Iowa law permits employers to drug and alcohol test an employee any time there’s a work-related injury.  That perception is wrong.  Employers do not have an absolute right to conduct post-injury drug and alcohol testing.  A more complicated analysis, which goes beyond whether there was a workplace injury, is required to determine whether an employer has the right to test.

The applicable employee drug testing statute provisions only allow employers to force a drug or alcohol test if they have evidence that an employee has caused an accident while at work that resulted in an injury to a person or property or when investigating accidents in the workplace in which the accident resulted in an injury to a person or property.  Thus, whether (1) there was an accident and (2) the cause of that accident must also be considered per Iowa’s drug testing statute.

So what is an “accident” under Iowa law?  Good question.  This is basically an “eye of the beholder” inquiry.  There is no scientific method to identify an “accident,” but Iowa law does provide a few guidelines.  In general, an “accident” means an undesigned, sudden, and unexpected event, usually of an afflictive or unfortunate character, and often accompanied by a manifestation of force.  The term can include an unexpected medical development of an unfavorable or injurious nature occurring in a person of apparently good health.  “Accident” has also been defined as a sudden event or change occurring without intent or volition through carelessness, unawareness, ignorance, or a combination of causes and producing an unfortunate result.

As for the “cause” component of the post-accident drug testing analysis, that too can be a complicated question.  Was the person to be tested a cause of the accident?  Was a combination of factors the cause?  Did the person to be tested do nothing at all to cause the accident?

These are especially difficult questions when employees injure themselves.  Back injuries are a common example.  Many employers will just assume the right to conduct drug and alcohol testing at that point.  But do they really have that right?  Can an “accident” be proved when employees hurt themselves?  Can employees “cause” injuries to themselves?  Not necessarily.

On the one hand, voluntary initiation of the chain of events that culminates in an injury does not necessarily preclude the finding of an accident. But on the other hand, what happened immediately after that initial voluntary act must also be considered.  An “accident” does not occur if the person’s initial voluntary act proceeds as intended and nothing unforeseen, unexpected, or involuntary occurs.  Conversely, if there occurred any unforeseen or involuntary movement, turn, or strain of the body that brought about the injury or if there occurred any unforeseen circumstance that changed the movement of the person’s body, then the event is properly described as an accident.

Further, regarding the “cause” portion of the inquiry, there is no presumption that bodily injuries are self-inflicted.  A factual inquiry must occur when trying to determine the cause of a work-related accident that only involved the injured employee.

In sum, employers that automatically conduct post-injury drug and alcohol testing need to think twice before doing so.  And employees who are asked to submit to post-injury drug and alcohol testing must carefully consider whether their employer has the right to do so.  Employers’ right to conduct post-injury drug and alcohol testing is much more complex than employers and employees may realize.


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