Sensible guide to drug testing in the workplace

The most important reason to conduct drug testing in the workplace is to ensure that the working environment is a healthy and safe place for all members of staff and customers. A secondary reason is to ensure that employees do not start to under-perform as a result of drug abuse. Regardless of the reason for businesses to start drug testing it is vital that employee’s rights are respected and that discrimination does not take place.

Approaching workplace drug testing

The most sensible approach to workplace drug testing is to implement a testing regime for all members of staff. It is important that every employee is treated equally to avoid the risk of an employee, or group of employees, feeling discriminated against.

However, the government advises that employers should limit testing to employees that need to be tested and to ensure that tests are random. Individuals must not be singled out, unless it is justified by the nature of their jobs.

Random testing works best, as employees who are abusing drugs cannot hide their addiction by abstaining for a period before testing.

It is against the law to force an employee to take a drugs test. However, if the drug testing policy forms a part of the employee contract then a company does have the right to take disciplinary action if an employee refuses to take a test.

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation has produced a report into drug testing in the workplace. They recommend that drug testing is carried out when employees are engaging in illegal activities; are actually intoxicated in working hours; where there is a demonstrable impact on performance; where the nature of work is such that an employer is expected to minimise risk, and where the public is entitled to expect higher than average standards of behaviour. Such places would include hospitals, the police force, prison service, emergency services and schools.

When to test

If a company has a zero tolerance attitude to drug abuse a test can be carried out when an employee first accepts a contract to work for the company. It is advisable that the employee is made aware of the policy before the job offer is made.

The government encourages random tests. Drug testing is a very quick process and should not interfere with production in any line of business.

Individuals should only be targeted for testing if there is reasonable evidence to suggest that they may have been abusing drugs. If such a situation arises it is always best for a manager to arrange a meeting with the employee to discuss their productivity or work attitude first to try to understand why they may be having problems.

An exception to this is if there is a serious incident in the workplace, such as an accident resulting in injury. A drugs test could then follow the incident, although there should ideally be a company policy set out in the employee handbook.

Methods of drug testing

There are two main methods of drugs testing: urine tests and hair follicle tests. Both tests are able to detect the most common substances that are prone to abuse. If a business implements a zero tolerance approach to drugs use it should consider using both forms of testing to ensure that the most accurate results are obtained.

Urine tests

Urine tests can provide an indication of drug abuse in the last four or five days prior to the test, so it is possible for an employee to disguise their drug use by abstaining for a week before the test. This is why random drug testing is used in athletics. Some substances can be detected for longer, such as cannabis.

One downside of urine tests is that there are products on the market that can void urine tests by flushing all known substances out of the system before testing takes place.

Hair follicle tests

Hair follicle tests can detect substances for up to three months and there are no known ways for a person to manipulate these tests. However, it generally takes little longer for a laboratory to return the results so action cannot be taken against an employee immediately.

Hair follicle tests do not detect drug abuse in the last few days, as the chemicals will not have yet been absorbed into the hair. Therefore it is not possible to carry out a test of this nature on an employee who is suspected of using drugs at the present time. Learn more about the methods of drug testing here.

A positive test result should be considered a health and welfare issue as well as a disciplinary matter, so ideally such a result should not lead to an automatic dismissal. Instead a company should provide some level of support and if necessary, redeployment into a new role.

If a company plans to start testing its employees all contracts or employee handbooks should be updated to reflect this, and all staff should be informed and agree to the change.