Are video games the future of impairment testing?

In an effort to determine whether employees are fit to perform in specific safety sensitive positions, some workplaces are now asking employers to play video games before starting work. A short test, the “video game” tests the player’s ability to classify shapes quickly and accurately, then uses the collected data and compares it with previous test results achieved by the same individual. User results are unique, and moderators are flagged when any abnormalities occur in a private, more subtle practice than in traditional and invasive urine or saliva tests. Developed to establish the presence of drugs, alcohol, or extreme fatigue, the test, called Alert Meter, can also show abnormalities when an employee is feeling overwhelmed by emotion, like grief, which can also pose a risk in safety sensitive worksites.

The results are also unique enough that it is apparent when one employee takes the test for another.
Urine and saliva testing has been the traditional method of establishing workplace impairment, but it has been known to erode management and employee relationships, and can be embarrassing and invasive for workers. As well, while urine can indicate whether THC from marijuana is present in an employee’s system, it cannot measure cannabis impairment as THC can last in the human body long after its impairment effects have worn off. Additionally, urine testing cannot account for other impediments to safety-sensitive workplace security, like fatigue. According to a study in 2016, drivers who had slept for less than five hours were 11.5 times more likely to have a motor vehicle accident when compared to those who had slept for seven hours or more. The correlation was made that driving after only four or five hours of sleep was similar in risk to driving at the criminal legal limit of blood alcohol content.

Former Ontario privacy commissioner Ann Cavoukian, who has previously fought random drug testing in the workplace, supports the video game alternative. “They’re just answering these questions every morning, which doesn’t take very long,” she says. “I think this is far preferable to bodily fluids, and as long as there’s transparency and consent associated with the use of this, from a privacy perspective, I think it’s fine,” adding, “So long as there’s transparency up front, employees are informed of this and why it’s happening, and it takes very little time, then the only concern I would have is what happens to the information.”

In order to implement workplace drug testing, the Supreme Court ruled in 2013 that employers first have to provide irrefutable evidence that a widespread substance abuse problem exists at the jobsite, stating, “Mandatory, random and unannounced testing for all employees in a dangerous workplace has been overwhelmingly rejected by arbitrators as an unjustified affront to the dignity and privacy of employees unless there is reasonable cause, such as a general problem of substance abuse in the workplace.”

The video game approach has been extended beyond the workplace in the USA, and could feasibly be used in roadside testing. This would be a boon for Canadian law enforcement, as no device to show evidence of drug impairment in roadside testing has yet to be approved for the upcoming October legalization deadline. In Massachusetts, a system that allows drivers to test their own impairment before driving by playing a simple, phone-based game has been developed. Like Alert Meter, the game learns the driver’s unique baseline abilities, then tests fatigue and impairment from various substances.

For Carol Setters from Alert Meter, drug testing is not necessarily just about bodily fluids. “It’s all about performance,” she says. “That’s the only thing you’re really concerned about: can this person perform well and safely?…That’s why we test their performance as opposed to their body fluids.”

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