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Drugs in the Workplace

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Are you concerned about drug use in the workplace?   Is this really a problem?

In the United States, up to 85 per cent of large companies have some form of drug testing in place.

In the United Kingdom, the percentage is lower - an estimated 15 per cent - but on the increase, according to Edward Wray-Bliss, a lecturer at the University of Technology, Sydney's school of management.

In Australia, industries such as mining and transport have had drug and alcohol testing regimes in place for some time.

In May, the Civil Aviation Safety Authority announced it would begin randomly testing pilots, air traffic controllers, those involved in the control or maintenance of aircraft and even baggage handlers for both drug and alcohol use.

According to reports, the decision followed a plane crash on Queensland's Hamilton Island in 2002 which killed six people, including a family of four from New Zealand. Police later found cannabis and smoking utensils in the pilot's car.

Not surprisingly, the most rigorous drug testing regimes are to be found in industries where the safety of the public and other workers is at risk. But the practice is also creeping into white-collar industries worried about reputation and fraud.

One of the problems with regimes such as testing hair and urine for drugs is it tends to show mostly past evidence of drug use, rather than current impairment. So a weekend smoker can test positive for cannabis, even if they don't take drugs on a work day.  

In May the Australian Industrial Relations Commission ruled that Shell was not allowed to take urine tests of employees at their Clyde refinery and Gore Bay terminal, but could test saliva, which only detect very recent drug use.

What this also reflects the delicate balancing act between the concerns of employers and the rights of employees.

Deacons workplace relations partner Martin Osborne says there is no set legal framework specific to drug-testing, so employers can decide how much risk drugs and alcohol poses and act accordingly.

But he warns any disciplinary action against employees for refusing to participate in a test or failing one can be the subject of unfair dismissal provisions under the Fair Work Act.

''Generally, my preference is to keep the drug and alcohol testing policy as flexible and simple as possible, to permit the employer to chose the appropriate and fairest course in the myriad of circumstances that can arise,'' Mr Osborne says.

If you are going to implement a drug and alcohol testing regime, you need to make sure that it is carefully thought out, well communicated and that employees understand that potential consequences of non-compliance or refusing to submit to a test. 

Remember also that in some locations and industries, testing may be mandatory through legislation (eg:  public bus drivers). 

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