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Oil and Gas Industry Says Too Many Workers Fail Drug Tests

The richest deposits of oil and natural gas in Ohio’s Utica shale formation are believed to be in counties east and north of Columbus in the foothills of Appalachia. There’s new demand for workers. But industry officials say too few qualify, in part, because they cannot pass a required drug screen.

RHONDA REDA: “This is becoming a bigger problem, or people are finally being made aware that this is a bigger problem than we ever realized.”

Rhonda Reda is head of the Ohio Oil and Gas Energy Education Program. She says abuse of prescription and illegal drugs makes it difficult to find enough workers.

BORGERDING: “Percentage wise what’s the rejection rate among actual applicants?"

REDA: "From the companies we’ve spoke to and what actual numbers that we’re getting is 50, 60 percent. That’s pretty high."

BORGERDING: "50 to 60 percent rejected because of this?"

REDA: "Correct, correct."

Reda’s organization operates training programs throughout eastern Ohio. She says the industry is in a race against time. So far, it’s added about 39,000 jobs in Ohio but she predicts thousands of new jobs will be added during the next three years. The Ohio Department of Natural Resources says 45 new horizontal wells in eastern Ohio are already producing oil and natural gas.There are permits for nearly 500 more.

New Concord consultant Elizabeth Carter recruits oilfield workers. She conducts recruitment seminars in a bid to find drug-free applicants.

CARTER: “If you’ve got a crane operator and he’s on Vicodin right now do you want him on your job site? Probably not.”

Carter adds some workers who pass an initial drug screen are employed only a short time.

CARTER: “You go ahead, you hire them and for whatever reason, you know it’s electronically pulled for random. The next month when you get you’re random list, those new hires are usually on there and that’s when they fail the drug test. They’ve cleaned up for your pre-employment and then think that they’re good to go and then they have positive for a random.”

The Centers for Disease Control says prescription drug abuse is epidemic across the country. Doctor Neil Capretto, medical director of Gateway Rehabilitation Centers, says his treatment centers in Ohio see the problem firsthand. Capretto says he’s not surprised by a 50 to 60 percent rejection rate of potential oilfield workers in eastern Ohio.

CAPRETTO: “But, particularly its been higher rates in often the working-class areas, communities in Ohio and Pennsylvania because people who are involved with more manual labor, physical type work are more likely to have work-related injuries, go to doctors, get prescription medicine.”

Capretto and Reda both say prescription and illegal drug abuse is a huge problem, and it;s prompting energy companies to bring some workers to Ohio from other states. Reda predicts about 30 percent of new jobs created in Ohio’s oil and natural gas fields will be filled by workers from outside Ohio.

Nick Castele was a senior reporter covering politics and government for Ideastream Public Media. He worked as a reporter for Ideastream from 2012-2022.