Over the limit

The misuse of drugs and alcohol in the workplace is becoming an increasing area of concern.

One study published in 2015 by Protecting.co.uk, found that nearly a third of workers admitted they had used drugs at work, while 31 per cent admitted to being drunk at work at least once a week. Alarmingly, 14 per cent of factory workers admitted to drinking alcohol at lunchtime, then operating machinery in the afternoon; and 5 per cent said they had used machinery after taking drugs.

It’s estimated that one in four workplace accidents are associated with alcohol. A survey carried out by Alcohol Concern found that 27 per cent of employers thought drug misuse was a problem at work, while 60 per cent had experienced problems due to staff drinking alcohol.

And there’s evidence that employees themselves are concerned. A survey carried out in 2017 by the Considerate Constructors Scheme revealed that despite 35 per cent of people saying they had noticed colleagues under the influence of drugs and alcohol during working hours, 65 per cent said that they had never been screened or tested for either by their employer.

Suzannah Robin, AlcoDigital

The legal position

Although drugs and alcohol testing are legislated for in certain sectors, such as the aviation, rail and shipping industries, at present there’s no legal obligation for most operators to adopt a specific testing policy – it’s very much down to individual organisations to implement their own strategies.

Despite the lack of legal requirement, the majority of regulatory bodies prohibit the misuse of both illegal drugs and prescription medication. Operators have a duty of care to maintain a safe working environment through testing their workforces, not only under industry rules and regulations, but also under the provisions of the Health and Safety at Work Act. If methods for detecting misuse are not implemented and an accident occurs, employers could face hefty fines or even be prosecuted. There are risks in almost any working environment, but there are obvious consequences for companies that employ machine operators or commercial drivers.

Devising a policy

Testing staff for drugs and alcohol has become an essential element of health and safety at work. As well as identifying offenders, screening also serves as a deterrent to those considering abusing substances in the workplace.

While many companies feel daunted by setting up a screening policy, fearing the reaction of employees and costs involved, the process can be relatively simple and inexpensive. Advances in technology have transformed the quality and accuracy of testing hardware. High-quality police-grade testing kits offer instant, reliable results. In addition to breathalysers, alcohol interlocks can be used on equipment or machinery, preventing them from starting until a negative breath test has been given. Another form of interlock device, which requires no mouthpiece, can also be fitted to unsupervised turnstiles, electric gates and other barrier systems – preventing anyone impaired by alcohol from entering a work site.

For drug testing, oral fluid collection offers a simple testing process, which is as reliable as blood testing, making it the method of choice for police roadside testing, as well as companies implementing drug screening policies.

Benefits for all

Employers have found that adopting a testing strategy has resulted in benefits such as lower absenteeism, a decrease in staff turnover and a safer working environment for everyone. 

It’s important that personnel are trained in the correct use of the kits and accurate interpretation of results, ensuring that any evidence provided is watertight if ever challenged in a legal action. It’s recommended that drugs and alcohol testing is carried out on a regular basis, particularly for high-risk industries, such as manufacturing and logistics.

A good policy should include a clear set of predetermined consequences. Depending on the severity of the situation, some employees could be asked to stop working for a short period of time or be suspended pending further investigation, while others could face instant dismissal.

Of course, setting up a best practice policy involves more than putting in place a screening strategy and conducting tests professionally. Employers should recognise that they have a moral responsibility beyond a test result to make sure staff who require help receive the appropriate level of support.

Suzannah Robin is alcohol and drug safety expert at AlcoDigital