An Employer’s Guide to Drug and Alcohol Testing in the Workplace

The risks of substance abuse should be managed effectively as part of a health and safety strategy. While alcohol and drug testing in the workplace can be a controversial issue, it can also be a useful strategy as part of a comprehensive workplace drug and alcohol policy. Recreational drug use and alcohol addiction are prevalent problems in society today. While an employer cannot make assumptions about an employee’s habits, substance misuse poses a genuine risk. 

Any alcohol or drug tests at work should be part of a programme that suits the needs of your business. The development of a policy that includes drug and alcohol testing should be done in collaboration with your workforce and its trade union. Workers’ rights are an important consideration. An individual’s conduct outside of work should not, in theory, be a matter of concern for their employer. However, as an employer it’s important to bear in mind the legal implications of controlled substance use on company premises and whether it impacts on an employee’s ability to do their job.

A comprehensive drug and alcohol policy should always provide support to employees. A zero-tolerance approach can be counterproductive. Many organisations invest time and money in their employees, making them important assets to the business. Termination of employment can be an unnecessary drain on resources and contribute to a culture of fear within your organisation. Providing help with alcohol or drug addiction may be the preferred policy for fostering a more supportive environment for your workforce.

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When can employers carry out drug and alcohol testing?

If you choose to incorporate alcohol and drug testing in the workplace as part of your health and safety strategy, there are legal guidelines to consider. In the UK, employers can carry out drug and alcohol testing if substance misuse would have serious health and safety ramifications or be damaging to their business. 

An employee cannot be singled out for testing unless the nature of their job demands it. Employers are within their rights to drug test prior to commencement of employment and during if the use of testing is necessary, proportionate and justified. While substance testing must be carried out with employee consent, an employer can make withholding consent a disciplinary matter; particularly, if refusal occurs when there are good grounds for testing. Additionally, data protection principles must be adhered to when dealing with sensitive personal data of this type.

Pre-employment drug test

As part of the recruitment process, a drug test can be carried out and included in a pre-employment medical assessment. While this process can detect risk factors that may impact negatively on performance, it also delivers a clear message regarding employer attitude to substance misuse.

Random drug test

A random drug testing policy can help to establish the extent of usage in the workplace. Employees will be aware that they can be tested at any time and as such, random testing may be implemented as a deterrent. 

With-cause drug test

Whether down to workplace rumour or observation, if an employer suspects substance abuse, it’s important that assumptions are substantiated. Due to the sensitive nature of such an accusation, a with-cause drug test should be conducted in line with the workplace drug and alcohol policy.

Post-accident drug test

Following an on-site incident or accident, testing can take place to establish whether the influence of drugs or alcohol played a part. It should take place as quickly as possible and include all parties involved.

Abstinence monitoring

If an employee has been enrolled in a workplace programme of rehabilitation offering help for addicts, testing to monitor abstinence may form a contractual part of the rehabilitation process.

Ways to test for substance use in the workplace

There are a variety of ways to test for substance use. A breathalyser measures current blood alcohol content and can accurately establish whether an individual has been drinking at work. Both oral fluid and urine samples can be taken at the point-of-care to provide almost immediate results. While oral fluid swabs are hard to cheat, the collection of urine samples is unobserved, making them more vulnerable to adulteration. Both tests must be followed by a confirmatory laboratory test.

Blood samples via a finger prick test can also be taken but must be analysed in a laboratory. Blood tests can highlight recent drug use and some can provide a picture of historical alcohol misuse. Another test method that must be referred to a laboratory is the analysis of hair. Highly sensitive and accurate, hair tests, while not suitable for in-the-moment testing can cover a wide detection window.

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The chain of custody in workplace drug testing

While employers have a duty to protect their employees, they must also be mindful of the harmful impact on an employee’s professional and personal life of a false accusation of substance misuse. The chain of custody (CoC) is a crucial process to incorporate into a drug testing policy. Protecting both collector and donor from claims of bias and cheating, this paper trail aims to ensure that accurate results relate to the right person.

What if an employee tests positive for drugs or alcohol?

In the instance of a positive result from one of your employees, discretion and professionalism will be paramount. It’s vital that you handle the result in line with your companies drug and alcohol policy as well as with care and compassion. It is always more beneficial to support and retain workers who suffer from addiction and guide them to getting the help they need, rather than implementing punitive policies.

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