Drug and alcohol testing - frequently asked questions

dtec Australia
Wednesday, 15 November, 2006

Drug and alcohol testing is becoming more widely accepted in Australian workplaces, but some employers still have questions - and possibly concerns - about the process, according to a leading national supplier of screening programs.

"In the past, and perhaps as little as two years ago, the most common question was 'why should we test employees?'," Andrew Leibie, principal scientific consultant for d:tec Australia said.

"Many companies didn't understand or were worried about what they would be getting themselves in for. There was unease about what many saw as invading their workers' privacy.

"Today, more and more employers understand the 'why' and are comfortable that workplace testing is as much about helping workers as it is about looking after their own interests.

"However, many still worry about the 'how' - and in particular, how to start.

"We are constantly asked not only about what needs to be done before testing begins, but also how to inform employees and then actually start the testing process."

The answer is to establish a specific testing policy, in consultation with employee representatives if possible, and to make it part of a broader fitness-for-work policy or employee assistance program.

"Don't think of it in isolation and don't think of it as some kind of imposition," Leibie said. "Emphasise to your workers that this is all part of helping to ensure that each individual is aware of how their habits affect their life as well as their ability to do their job.

"But that said, the policy must be formally developed, with appropriate sign-off, and a lot of thought needs to go into it.

"A comprehensive staff education program is also an important part of the process so that all concerned understand that testing is being introduced as a proactive, positive initiative for the benefit of all workers and the organisation as a whole.

"Everyone must be clear, for example, about the types of testing you want to do, who will do it, who will be tested, what the repercussions of positive results will be, and who has responsibility within the company for programming tests and making follow-up decisions.

"Unfortunately, there is no generic template. There are guidelines, but every company's needs differ. Even within the same industry, size, location, work patterns and a whole range of other factors can mean one business needs something very different to another.

"The good news is that many companies that carry out drug and alcohol screening can help put a policy in place. In fact, it is recommended that you do seek professional help. You may not be the same as other companies in your industry, but experts who have worked with some of those other companies will have valuable tips from lessons already learned. And they understand the regulations.

"Despite your best intentions, this can be an emotional issue and you want to make sure you have all the bases covered."

Leibie said many people did not realise there was an Australian Standard 4308 for urine drug testing, set down by Standards Australia.

"Make sure the company you choose complies with the standard and that the people conducting the test have had some form of formal training," he said.

"There are enough issues to deal with when a worker tests positive without having the credentials of the testers questioned.

"In our experience, some companies prefer to have an outside party test their staff for ease of working relationships, but others have on-site managers, nurses or risk managers who test the staff as part of a fitness-for-work program. Most testing companies can provide appropriate training."

Leibie said urine testing was generally preferred to saliva testing as it was quicker and more accurate; indeed, doubts still exist about saliva testing in many situations.

"Modern urine testing systems are very accurate - usually around 98-99% - and an initial positive reading must be verified by a second, more specific test (GC/MS) before it is deemed to be correct," he said. "A laboratory report will indicate how much of a drug is present in the person's system and what type of drug it is."

Testing can be carried out for alcohol and five main drug groups - opiates (including codeine and heroin), benzodiazepines (including sleeping tablets and anti-anxiety drugs), cannabis, cocaine and amphetamines.

Employers need to decide in the planning stages who to test and how often.

"To a certain extent these decision do overlap," Leibie said. "For example, some companies routinely test all employees prior to offering them a position or a promotion and testing might also be routine after an on-site incident.

"But a little more sensitivity - and forethought - is required if you want to institute random testing, or a less structured routine such as always testing where a person is suspected of being unfit for work or has returned to work after a break because of a previous positive test.

"It is important not to be seen to be discriminating against or to be victimising certain individuals, and again this all comes back to having a policy in place and talking through what that policy will mean if and when someone tests positive."

Leibie said it was common for the introduction of drug screening to be followed by a 1-2% resignation rate, but that most employers saw this as a positive - as those leaving may be using drugs and unwilling to change their ways.

"The bottom line is that every employer has a duty of care to their employees, which includes ensuring a safe working environment," he said. "That safety can be affected by the physical, mental and emotional condition of those you are required to work with and near.

"Statistics clearly show that people who abuse alcohol or drugs are significantly more likely to be involved with workplace accidents.

"As a result, having an appropriate policy and testing program in place plays an important role in maintaining a safe workplace."

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