Challenges in workplace drug testing

By Dannielle Furness
Wednesday, 31 August, 2011

As with all Australian industry, the mining and minerals sector is dedicated to providing a safe working environment for employees, limiting all possible exposure to dangerous work conditions and other factors which represent a threat to the wellbeing of the workforce. Under the Mine Health and Safety Regulation 2007, a mine operator must implement a 'Fitness for Work' program which, among other requirements, includes provision for a company to implement 'measures to eliminate or control the risks arising from the consumption of intoxicating liquor or drugs'.

This seems like a relatively simple task, but the myriad options for testing and recording results, legal and compliance requirements, as well as the rise in availability of synthetic drugs which may not be detected in traditional tests, can provide a number of hurdles to scale before a mine operator ensures that legal obligations are being met.

As an employer, a company has a duty of care to its staff and the ultimate responsibility for providing a safe workplace. The risks associated with drug and alcohol use in the workplace and any subsequent impairment of individuals are obvious, particularly in environments which are highly hazardous in nature. In an effort to streamline the process, most state government work safety bodies, such as Work Cover NSW and Work Safe Victoria, issue guidelines to assist companies in developing drug and alcohol policies. The planned national harmonisation of Occupational Health and Safety regulations in 2012 will further clarify employer requirement and obligations.

A tighter focus on compliance in recent years, along with the introduction of national standards for specimen collection and testing, has resulted in an increased need for a structured and defined drug and alcohol testing process. In the mining industry, a Drug and Alcohol Screen is carried out before an individual can gain access to a site and randomly conducted on a regular basis to workers located at that site. Testing can either be carried out in-house (provided appropriate compliance and accreditation is in place) or via an accredited third-party collection agency.

There are two common drug testing methods: urine testing and oral fluid testing. The invasive nature of blood testing, along with a requirement for highly trained staff and costly equipment, makes it an inappropriate method. While both common techniques can detect illegal and prescription drugs, each presents its own advantages and disadvantages in terms of administration, accuracy and applicable detection periods.

Urine sampling requires a higher level of privacy and is therefore susceptible to tampering - providing a ‘clean’ sample obtained from another individual, for example. Alternatively, the presence of a witness at the time of sampling impinges on privacy, potentially creating an uncomfortable environment or triggering an unfavourable response from the individual being tested. Privacy issues aside, urine testing is fairly accurate, results are determined quickly (around five minutes) and it provides an extended window of detection (greater than 24 hours from ingestion), substantially above that provided by oral fluid testing.

This in itself raises issues, as the correlation between the timing of drug consumption and a positive result in the workplace can mean different things in different industries. If testing is being carried out to determine whether an employee is ‘fit for work’ under a specific drug and alcohol policy, then the employer really only needs to know whether the presence of drugs is a current state and likely to cause an impairment to judgement or the ability to carry out functions associated with a particular role. The ability to determine that an individual partook in recreational drugs a week or more prior may have little significance to the employer, so may be deemed unnecessary in terms of meeting company policy requirement.

Recent improvements in drug testing technology have resulted in increased accuracy in oral fluid testing, as well as the ability to screen for benzodiazepines as found in certain prescription drugs including sleeping pills and Valium, which was previously only possible using urine testing. An overuse of benzodiazepines can impact on the ability of a person to carry out their responsibilities, so it is logical to test for their presence in a working environment.

Testing saliva has a number of advantages over urine testing; it is completely observable, quick to administer and delivers a relatively fast result (around 10 minutes). A shortened detection window means that only drugs ingested within 24 hours are detected, in the case of methamphetamines and opiates, or less than four hours in the case of cannabis. Each method of testing must comply to the relevant Australian standards (AS/NZS 4308:2008 for specimen collection and the detection and quantitation of drugs of abuse in urine and AS/NZS 4760:2006 for oral fluid) and be carried out by a National Association of Testing Authorities (NATA) accredited company.

One of the greatest issues currently confronting the industry is the rise of synthetic cannabinoids. Freely available for many years, the herbal substitute gained widespread notoriety and media attention late last year and, until recently, was sold in Australia over the counter and via the internet under a number of brand names, including K2, Spice, Serenity and, most notably, Kronic.

Manufactured by spraying relatively harmless ‘smoking herbs’ with a synthetically developed chemical (JWH-018), Kronic and its counterparts mimic the effect of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the active ingredient found in marijuana, and reportedly deliver the same ‘high’. Given the lack of governance surrounding the production of both JWH-018 and the end product, there is little known about the potential side effects of long-term use. However, the substance is banned in 16 countries around the world, which suggests widespread health concerns for users among the international medical profession.

As traditional drug testing for cannabis screens the presence of THC, Kronic and other synthetics escaped detection, particularly in the mining industry, where concerns grew that use of the drug was becoming more prevalent. In response to these concerns, Western Australia was the first to take steps to curb usage, placing a ban on any products containing seven identified synthetic cannabinoids in June this year.

Other states including Queensland, New South Wales and Tasmania signalled their intention to follow suit in July. No sooner had legislation been passed, a new form of the drug appeared in Perth, allegedly containing none of the seven banned substances. It is now being tested by the WA Government-run ChemCentre to determine if it should also be prohibited. While on-site drug assessments were initially unable to pick up synthetic cannabinoids, newly developed lab tests can provide positive detection, thereby providing mining operators and other industry with the ability to deflect the rapid changes in illegal drug supply and lessen the impact on the workforce.

Related Articles

Top tips: Starting a workplace drug and alcohol testing program

Implementing a comprehensive and robust workplace testing program can help to reduce drug- and...

Workplace drug and alcohol programs: some key considerations

When it comes to substance abuse in the workplace, construction is considered one of the...

Saliva-based drug testing tech drives bus group safety

An advanced drug and alcohol testing solution has been adopted by a bus operator to ensure the...

  • All content Copyright © 2024 Westwick-Farrow Pty Ltd