Essential steps for a successful workplace drug testing program

dtec Australia
Monday, 14 August, 2006

For most companies considering the introduction of drug and alcohol tests in the workplace, the first question asked is: "Where do I start?"

According to leading Australian supplier of drug and alcohol testing programs, d:tec Australia, before considering the procedures and analysis of testing, the first thing companies need to work on is their policy.

d:tec Australia's Principal Scientific Consultant, Andrew Leibie, said a generic drug and alcohol policy was unlikely to suit the specific needs of individual businesses.

"Nobody knows a company's requirements, facilities, operation and circumstances better than it does, so don't be afraid to use your own expertise," he said.

Leibie said the best way to develop a policy and implement drug and alcohol testing was to make it part of a company's wider Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) strategy.

"The most effective drug and alcohol testing programs are part of broader OHS goals and are not implemented solely for cost benefits or as a 'moral' issue, but primarily to assist and improve the health and safety of employees," he said.

"Drug and alcohol testing is most effective when the 'ground-work' has already been laid.

"Before testing is implemented, clear objectives should be set and extensive staff education undertaken to ensure all parties involved understand why testing is taking place.

"Many companies introduce testing as part of their duty of care under the Occupational Health and Safety Act to protect staff and to provide a safe working environment.

"For others it will be to protect the safety of the general public, or it may be part of their corporate 'fitness for work' program.

"Decide also on the scope of testing and when will it be conducted. Some options include pre-employment, random, incident and self-testing."

Leibie said careful consideration of when and how testing would be conducted helped ensure minimum disruption and maximum effect.

"This will help to tailor the program to suit the individual needs of your company and also assist with staff education," he said.

"The majority of workplace testing is conducted using urine samples. There is no Australian Standard for saliva testing and it can take up to 15 minutes to collect and test a saliva sample, with some questions still hovering over the accuracy of some kits."

Leibie said it was important to state clearly which drugs were being tested for and at what levels.

"Any company considering implementing a urine drug testing program should be familiar with the Australian Standard 4308," he said.

"In addition to outlining procedures for the collection, detection and quantity of drugs of abuse in urine, the Australian Standard details the types of drugs that should be tested and the cut-off levels for these drugs in urine.

"State how you are going to deal with the person during the period before the screening result is confirmed, and what to do in the case of 'false positives' - which is what happens when the screening test shows positive, and the confirmation test shows negative.

"You can choose to screen urine samples on-site using a device which can give you a result detailing the presence or absence of any of the five drug groups listed in the Australian Standard within five minutes."

Leibie said on-site testing provides a presumptive positive result only and should be confirmed by an accredited laboratory before action is taken.

"Alternatively, you may prefer to collect samples on-site and send them to a laboratory for screening and confirmation if required," he said.

"Both of these methods are valid and provide a deterrent for drug abuse. The format of testing you choose for the initial screening test will depend on your circumstances and the advantages that each form of testing offers you."

Leibie said drug screening should be set up as a "two-tier" testing procedure.

"This means that there are two completely independent tests, each with independent cut-off levels," he said.

"For a sample to be reported as positive, it must test above the cut-off level on both tests which is an excellent safeguard to ensure accurate results."

Leibie said it was important to clearly allocate responsibility for test results.

"Decide in advance who is responsible for carrying out the testing and any repercussions for a positive test," he said.

"The action you take following a positive test result must be clearly stated in your policy. This may cover disciplinary procedures, Employee Assistance Programs, counselling and action to take on subsequent breaches of policy.

"In addition, employees need to clearly understand what their responsibilities are in relation to drugs and alcohol in the workplace.

"A three-strike policy is generally recommended, however this should be enforced in a non-punitive way. Ideally, employer-sponsored counselling should be available for employees with an identified problem of substance abuse."

Leibie said it was critical to consult, train and provide information to staff about drug and alcohol testing.

"Employees deserve some education upon implementation of a drug and alcohol workplace policy," he said. "Most companies with effective programs in place believe that training and education sessions are vital to their success.

"It's a good idea to discuss the policy and provide staff with information on the purpose of the program, as well as the manner in which it will be conducted. It is also worth including information about the effects of drugs and alcohol.

"It might be appropriate to link this as part of a 'fitness for work' program and hold discussions on other general health issues.

"Clearly there are issues that impact on fitness for work beyond drug and alcohol abuse, for example fatigue, which may also be a relevant topic for discussion."

Leibie said there were several key privacy issues involved in this testing that must be considered before the program commenced.

These include:

  • How collection facilities provide privacy for the donor.
  • How are the results of the test to be reported.
  • Who the results are reported to.
  • How the results are stored, for how long and by whom.
  • The method by which positive samples are transferred to a laboratory for confirmation testing.

Leibie said privacy and confidentiality considerations were essential.

"Drug testing need not be invasive," he said. "A good way to ease into the process is to allow 'no blame' periods or self-testing trials so staff can learn to self-monitor.

"Test results should be held in the strictest confidence and all parties involved should know exactly what their rights and responsibilities are before testing commences.

"A supportive management culture is a contributing factor to the success of a drug testing process."

Testing methods and their benefits:

Random testing - Testing all employees on a random day or a select group of employees (for example, 10%) discourages drug and alcohol use and abuse as it makes testing unpredictable.

Pre-employment testing - Testing all potential employees before offering employment lowers the risk of hiring someone who is currently a drug or alcohol abuser.

For cause tests - Testing employees who are under reasonable suspicion of being unfit for duties protects the safety of the employee, other workers and the public at large.

Post-incident tests - Testing employees who have been involved in an accident or near-miss can help determine if drug or alcohol use was a factor and assist in maintaining safety in the workplace.

Follow-up tests - Testing employees before they return to work after a positive test or as periodical follow-up can help to ensure they have stopped abusing drugs or alcohol.

Pre-promotion tests - Testing employees before promotion will help to ensure the company is not promoting someone who may have a drug or alcohol problem.

Most of these types of testing can also give employees who are abusing drugs or alcohol the chance to obtain help for their problem.

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