Your test returned a positive result, sir

By Paul Stathis
Monday, 19 April, 2010

Drug and alcohol testing is one of the most contentious issues in the workplace - detection versus impairment, employees’ rights versus employers’ responsibilities, ensuring worker safety versus dictating workers’ lifestyles, just to name a few of the issues. Despite the polarised views that often exist towards drugs and alcohol in the workplace and testing for them, there are important practical issues that must be understood and addressed to ensure the workplace is safe and fair.

Drugs and alcohol are a fact of 21st-century life. They’re readily available. They’re highly sought after by some, yet actively opposed by others. Some insist on tighter controls, while others call for more liberal attitudes. But one fact we can’t dispute is that they are contributing factors to deaths and injuries - on roads, in clubs, in homes and in workplaces.

The stance that companies need to take on drugs and alcohol in their workplace is not an easy one, as evidenced by all the debates that stem from it. Anyone responsible for administering a company’s safety program will have had to address drugs and alcohol, and faced the challenges of making the best decisions for their specific circumstances.

So how do you deal with the situation referred to in the title - getting a positive result from a drug or alcohol test at your workplace? And what if that person is a valued worker with a previously impeccable record that just happens to everyone’s friend, including yours? Tough call. But it’s a real situation that can and does occur and must be accounted for before it happens.

In researching this ‘sticky’ topic, I contacted a couple of subject matter experts to seek out some guidance that might help you with some clarity and practical assistance.

Alcohol in the workplace

Peter Palmai, Market Manager for Drug & Alcohol Detection at Draeger Safety, has many years of experience in dealing with drugs and alcohol in the workplace and has heard all the arguments from both sides.

“Employers have an ever-increasing duty of care to keep their employees and their workplace safe,” states Palmai. “So they’re becoming more conscious of their responsibilities to manage the impact that alcohol consumption can potentially have on people’s ability to do their jobs effectively and safely. So employers need to be proactive about it and be able to make informed decisions.

“Firstly, there are some common misconceptions about alcohol testing devices (breathalysers) that need to be cleared up. There are three levels of alcohol testing devices currently available - personal, screening testers and evidential breath testers. They each use different technologies and have distinct applications in determining alcohol levels. A good rule of thumb is that the less the tester costs, the lower its performance.”

These testers are typically positioned as their names imply:

  • Personal breathalysers deploy semiconductor technology to analyse the subject’s breath. They are typically low-cost devices ($50-300 in retail stores) and only provide an indicative level of alcohol in an individual.
  • Screening breathalysers are the devices used by police to test drivers and are also commonly used in the workplace. They deploy electrochemical fuel-cell technology to provide accurate readings of the subject’s breath and cost in the vicinity of $300-$1500.
  • Evidential breathalysers use infrared technology to provide highly reliable verification of breath alcohol levels. These are typically found at police stations, in ‘booze buses’ and in specialist laboratories that provide accurate information that stands up in court, as the name suggests. They are often used in tandem with screening testers following a positive screening result. These sophisticated instruments can cost as much as $12,000.

“It should be understood that there is currently no standard in place for workplace alcohol testing as alcohol policies are tailored to the requirements of companies,” continues Palmai. “Furthermore, there is also no wall-mount, handheld or interlock device that is certified in Australia as an evidential breathalyser.

“Most organisations use AS 3547 as the minimum standard for their respective alcohol testing policy. However, this standard needs to be tightened up considerably to eliminate the low-performing devices that are available if it’s to be useful in the workplace. Companies serious about their workplace alcohol policies have often adopted the procedures and standards the police use instead. Interestingly, many large corporations are tailoring their testing procedures to an initial screen test followed by on-site evidential testing to avoid litigation issues involving accuracy of test or judgment of tester.

“Historically, the police collaboratively developed their own national evidential alcohol testing standard, based on an international standard. The National Measurement Institute (NMI) worked with the police to create a local version of the standard. Notably, NMI carries out certification of all of the police evidential testers.”

Adding to these views is Draeger’s Market Manager for Occupational Safety Equipment, Stefan Hildebrandt: “Testing for either alcohol or drugs in the workplace must be done objectively, not subjectively. That means using a truly random process to select workers for tests, unless for post-accident or reasonable-cause testing.

“You can’t have a situation where the testing procedure is challenged as being biased one way or another. Imagine if a safety officer was left to his own choice as to whom to select - would he avoid his mates, or anyone he knew had been drinking the night before? Or would he target specific individuals? Companies must have transparent random selection procedures. I know of companies that use software that randomly picks names from the payroll list.

“In some remote mining sites where workers live in on-site accommodation facilities, the rooms are fitted with screening breathalysers so they can self-check and take appropriate action if they register a positive result, avoiding the situation escalating into an impairment issue at the workplace. I know of companies that have purchased personal breathalysers for their staff, again so they can self-test before entering their workplace.

“These initiatives are generally seen by workers as the employer taking positive steps to keep the workplace safe, rather than being ‘judgmental’ of their private lives. So, in these circumstances, workers are more willing to self-check and respect the company’s alcohol policy.”

Drugs in the workplace

Objectivity is just as important in testing for drugs, given the polarised views that exist in the workplace about it. Coupled with the variety of testing procedures, the number of substances to be identified and the complex handling process for test specimens, safety personnel must be vigilant to maintain transparency in the way they administer testing.

“Objectivity starts with the selection process in drug testing,” continues Hildebrandt. “Unlike alcohol testing, all on-site drug testing - whether oral, urine or sweat - is ‘screening’ not ‘evidential’ testing. So it can be quite lengthy when an initial screen test is positive. The specimen is subjected to ‘confirmatory’ testing in a laboratory and, because several steps are involved, the process is governed by a ‘chain-of-custody’ procedure to ensure the integrity of specimens and tests.

“Manipulation of specimens and test results can be a determining factor in the type of drug testing deployed and must be addressed individually by each company for its workplace. Oral tests are less susceptible to manipulation than other methods because they’re simpler - the test swab goes straight from the subject’s mouth into the tester in the presence of a supervisor, whereas urine samples are produced in private and require handover for testing, providing the potential for specimen exchange or tampering. Many workers also find urine testing objectionable, whereas oral testing is far less ‘invasive’.”

Impairment versus detection

“Who within an organisation is qualified to determine if a person is impaired by drugs and therefore unfit for work?” asks Hildebrandt rhetorically. “This is one of the debates around drug testing in the workplace.

“There was some very good research published by Caplan and Goldberg in 2001 that qualified the ‘analytical window’ of the presence of drugs in people. It pointed out that drugs were detectable in blood and saliva over the period of a few hours to a few days, whereas the drug residue remained in urine and sweat for periods of days to months and in hair and nails for up to a few years.

“So urine tests are more likely to identify usage - which could have been days earlier - not necessarily impairment; whereas oral tests are more likely to identify very recent usage, where the subject may potentially still be under the influence of the drug and therefore impaired.

“An area where urine testing is proving useful is pre-employment qualification,” adds Hildebrandt. “Because it can detect drug usage over a long period of time, it can help prospective employers screen out people with drug habits.

“Some companies may need to look specifically for impairment, whereas others may need to identify habitual drug use. Both issues have an impact on the safety of the workplace, so employers need to take a holistic view to drugs and alcohol in their workplace, factoring their specific circumstances, risks, staff characteristics, etc into their drugs and alcohol policies. Employers with such issues in their workforce may want to factor counselling and rehab services into their programs to help employees solve their drug or alcohol habits.”

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