Risk factor: drug and alcohol testing during COVID-19

Recovery Partners

By Paul Molinia, General Manager of Rehabilitation (NSW, ACT, SA & Qld), Recovery Partners
Monday, 12 October, 2020

Risk factor: drug and alcohol testing during COVID-19

To mitigate the potential risks arising from workers operating under the influence, organisations in the safety-critical mining, construction and transport industries often implement drug and alcohol (D&A) testing protocols. But, are these protocols still necessary during COVID-19, or do the contamination possibilities of D&A tests pose more risks than they allay?

During the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, Australian workers have been hitting the bottle more heavily than usual. With the ongoing stress of the pandemic conditions, we’re turning to booze to ease our anxiety, but it’s a problematic strategy, particularly in those industrial sector roles that already have a high incidence of drug and alcohol misuse or abuse. While less data is available about drug use during COVID-19, it seems reasonable to assume it continues to be an issue, supply difficulties notwithstanding. While it’s important that employers have empathy for employees who have found themselves experiencing increased stress and anxiety due to the pandemic, those organisations that have D&A testing regimens need to continue to uphold them during COVID-19, as the consequences of not continuing D&A testing are too serious to ignore, but it’s important that the testing be conducted hygienically and safely, preferably by professionals, and that workers are treated respectfully in the process.

Consequences of discontinuing D&A tests amid COVID-19

Industry risks

The industries that usually conduct these tests are those where an employee who is affected by D&A could pose a significant safety risk to themselves or others in the course of their work. They may be operating machinery, performing manual handling duties or working with the public (such as delivery drivers). When these workers aren’t fully cognisant of what they’re doing, the consequences can be devastating and can include serious injury or potential loss of life, for them or someone else. A worker who is under the influence of drugs or alcohol may also be less vigilant when it comes to hygiene precautions such as frequent handwashing, social distancing and the wearing of appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE).

To keep the virus contained, everyone needs to be taking very conscious and deliberate steps to protect themselves and others. This requires diligence, attention and thought, and alcohol or other substances can compromise a worker’s ability to pay attention and give the requisite consideration to their actions. In this same vein, significant drug or alcohol use may possibly affect a worker’s ability to recognise and appreciate that they have symptoms of coronavirus, or even obscure those symptoms. As such, they could unknowingly spread the virus throughout their community, adding to the already concerning levels of community transmission cases. As well as compromising the safety of those around them, workers impacted by alcohol may also put themselves at additional risk.

Personal risks

Research has shown that frequent drinking lowers the immune system. So, if someone is a heavy drinker, they are actually more susceptible to infection and at greater risk of contracting a virus like COVID-19. We also know that heavy use of alcohol increases the risk of acute respiratory distress syndrome developing from COVID-19, which is a very serious illness. While maintaining D&A testing during the pandemic is important, it’s also vital that those workers subject to tests are consulted about how it will be conducted safely.

Responsibilities to conduct testing safely

Keep workers informed

Workers have the right to be informed how testing procedures in COVID-19 will take into account the very real risks of infection transmission posed by this sort of contact. They should be reassured that their employer has taken the necessary steps to adjust the practice of testing so it includes the additional hygiene measures that COVID-19 necessitates.

Choose reputable providers

D&A testing should be conducted by reputable providers, and in conjunction with pre-employment assessments and random testing protocols, providers should have updated their testing methods in light of COVID-19 transmission concerns. There should be a focus on minimising the potential of droplet contamination, particularly with breath testing, which can be achieved by using a testing machine with a mouthpiece adaptor and one-way valve so that any droplet contamination is contained within the mouthpiece. The assessed individual should then dispose of the mouthpiece themselves. The testing equipment must be disinfected between every sample and assessors must adhere to all relevant precautions like maintaining social distancing and wearing PPE while they conduct the tests.

COVID-19 compounded existing concerns

Australians are already concerned about how our culture normalises drinking to excess and about the individual, community and interpersonal implications of this. The research on the catastrophic physical and mental health effects of sustained drug and alcohol use is clear. We also know that workers consuming excessive alcohol not only affects their work performance, but also comes at a substantial cost to Australian businesses, with billions of dollars lost in productivity and to absenteeism every year. We’ve already seen the economic uncertainty and job insecurity the pandemic has brought about, and nobody wants to see this compounded even further. D&A use among workers was a problem prior to the pandemic, and the stress of the pandemic has amplified it. As such, discontinuing D&A testing now would be completely counterproductive.

Employee wellness programs can help

Ideally, organisations should be looking at strategies to help their employees limit or mitigate the effects of their alcohol consumption on both their health and their work, regardless of whether crisis events like COVID-19 are co-occurring. An employee wellness program (EWP) can be a very effective way of achieving this. The idea of an EWP is that it’s proactive rather than reactive. It encourages and facilitates employees to maintain good health all the time, rather than just dealing with the effects of ill health.

A workplace wellness program should include measures to promote good health physically and psychologically, and incorporate training that teaches participants to recognise and manage stress without using alcohol or drugs. When employees are given assistance and encouragement to make healthier lifestyle choices, both they and their employers benefit. And when crises like COVID-19 occur, the framework is already in place for giving people the support they need to cope with elevated stress.

Image credit: ©stock.adobe.com/au/Piotr

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