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Is drug testing the answer?

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Drug testing is not a substitute for a good drugs and alcohol policy. Nor does it tell employers what they need to know.

Every year or two there is a story in the news about either the growing problem of drugs in the workplace or the growing use of drug testing. Usually the source of these stories is the companies who are trying to sell drug testing to employers.

The truth is slightly different. Most people accept that illicit drug use generally is decreasing. In the workplace, what is more common than people coming in under the influence of an illegal drug, is workers whose performance is affected by either prescription or over the counter drugs, and of course alcohol. UK adults are the most likely in the EU to abuse stimulant prescription drugs, but drug-testing focuses on the illegal drugs.

Nor does the use of drug testing in British workplaces seem to be increasing for the simple reason that it does not tell the employer what they need to know, which is whether someone is working unsafely because of drug use regardless of whether the substance is illegal or not. After all, with the exception of alcohol testing, what a drug test does not do is measure someone’s level of impairment. It simply indicates that a person may have taken a specific substance in the past few days.

In some industries such as transport there are specific laws covering drug and alcohol use. This may include an element of drug testing, but even in those industries employers should not see it as an effective way to protect safety.

No-one wants people working under the influence of any kind of drugs or alcohol, especially where they could pose a risk to the safety of themselves or others. But by focusing on drug testing, an employer would be failing in their duty to protect workers, as it does nothing to encourage workers to be open about any problems they might have and ignores the bigger risk of people working unsafely because they are taking prescription or over-the-counter medication.

It is not the business of employers to police what employers do in their own time, especially if it has no impact on their work. However, if someone has a problem such as an addiction, or is regularly misusing any kind of drugs or medication that can affect their work, employers should aim to be supportive and non-judgemental.

It is for these reasons that every employer needs a drug and alcohol policy aimed at supporting any person with a drug or alcohol problem but at the same time ensuring that no-one puts themselves or others at risk through misuse at work.

In some safety-critical industries, drug and alcohol testing may be part of that policy and where that happens, unions need to ensure that testing is only introduced after negotiation and where workers are clearly told what it entails and what their rights are. Also, where drug-testing is introduced, employers cannot simply rely on a positive test for dismissing someone. They must be able to challenge the test result and appeal against any decision.

Dealing with issues like drug use in the workplace can be very difficult, but, from a safety point of view, it is best done by on open and non-judgemental policy aimed at giving people support. That is why the TUC has produced two guides. One on drug and alcohol policies and the other on drug testing.

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