With alcohol and other drugs forming such a central part of our day to day life, it’s not surprising that they have a significant impact on our workplaces. $6 billion dollars each year is the estimated cost of alcohol and other drugs to businesses – a significant proportion of which is attributable to lost productivity and sick days.

Alcohol and other drug issues in the workplace can be expensive, disruptive and difficult to manage. But workplaces also have a great opportunity to set their employees up for success and to proactively deal with any issues that do emerge in a supportive way.

Each individual brings their own culture and experiences around drugs and alcohol to work with them. Building a positive workplace culture where expectations are clear and individuals feel supported to raise issues is a great way to start.

Your obligations

Is your organisation at risk?

Given nearly 80% of Australian adults are drinkers, 15% take illicit drugs and 11.4% admit to misusing medication the chances are that these substances are going to affect your organisation – and not just through accidents or injuries.

Not being at their best after a big night or while taking medication can cause employees to make errors, silly mistakes and poor decisions – which all stack up. These things combine to be a big expense for business – $6 billion per year.

If you do not take appropriate steps, such as establishing a clear policy and promoting it to your employees, you leave your business at risk for being ruled against in unfair dismissal cases – even if the employee was using alcohol or other drugs in the workplace.

Drug testing

Employee testing is mandatory for some industries and is voluntarily conducted in others. The most important thing to know about drug testing is that it will not, on its own, make your workplace safe from the harms of alcohol and other drugs. It must be part of a suite of measures introduced to protect your employees and your business.

What is a drug test?

Testing identifies if traces of alcohol and/or other drugs are in the saliva, breath or urine of an employee. Drug tests cannot tell exactly how much of, or when, any given drug was used. Apart from alcohol breath testing, no drug test can measure current impairment.

Drug testing best practice

To ensure that the introduction of drug testing is successful, it must:

  • Be justifiable
  • Be designed to address an identified risk
  • Adopt policies that are procedurally fair
  • Result in counselling, treatment and rehabilitation rather than punitive outcomes
  • Allow for employee input into the development and implementation of the program
  • Allow for a right of appeal

An alcohol and other drug policy is a necessity

The first step for any business must be to establish and promote an alcohol and other drugs policy that covers alcohol and illicit drugs, as well as licit pharmaceutical drugs. This policy must then be explained and promoted to staff so the business can prove employees were aware of it.

If drug testing is undertaken without also taking other necessary steps, such as establishing a clear policy and educating staff about it, terminating employees who return a positive test can potentially hurt your business.

At-risk business:

An employee was dismissed after returning a positive drug test for Cannabis. The employee stated that he had used cannabis 7 days earlier and didn’t feel impaired, so he shouldn’t have been dismissed.

Dismissal was upheld by FWA.

FWA deemed the fact the employee was impaired or not, was irrelevant. The employer dismissed the employee because they returned the positive test, which was clearly stated in their policy. The employer also provided the employee an opportunity to respond to the allegation and the employee had received alcohol and drug training.

Considering drug testing in your workplace?

The most important thing to know about drug testing is that it’s not a ‘silver bullet’ and needs to be accompanied by other measures that will make up a broader, rehabilitation-focused strategy.

Making the decision to voluntarily drug tests can be complicated, because it’s an infringement on an employee’s bodily and information privacy. This infringement must be justified by the goals that testing is being implemented to reach.

What are you hoping to achieve?

It’s crucial to consider the purpose of testing and what the organisation is hoping to achieve through its use. There are two options; testing for recent use and a higher likelihood of current impairment and testing for past use. Your organisation needs to consider their end goal when choosing between these two types.

There are arguments from both sides of the divide as to whether an organisation should test whether an employee is ‘fit for work’ (saliva) or test an employee for recreational drug use (urine).

Fit for work testing: saliva

There is no way of determining through drug testing if a person is impaired, but a saliva test does detect the active ingredient in a drug. If an active ingredient is detected, there is a higher chance that this employee has taken the drug recently (within the last couple of days). This could potentially mean that the person is still under the effect of that drug.

Past use testing: urine

Urine tests cannot determine is a person is under the influence of a substance. It can determine if an employee has taken a substance in the past, such as on the weekend or on leave, but cannot tell you exactly how much or when. Urine testing can be understood as a detection method for recreational use and as a means of deterring drug use.

The issue of deterrence can be complex; some employees may switch drug types to avoid detection and can sometimes switch from using a less harmful to a more harmful drug. For example, when being urine tested cannabis use has a longer window of detection (up to seven days for a casual user, or up to 30 days for a heavy user) whereas cocaine use has a shorter window (up to three days).

Why care about past use?

Identifying if an employee is using a drug recreationally is important because it can impact their work in many ways, such as:

  • Inconsistent work quality
  • Poor concentration and lack of focus
  • Lowered productivity or erratic work patterns
  • Increased absenteeism or on the job ‘presenteeism’
  • Unexplained disappearances from the jobsite
  • Risk taking
  • Disregard for safety for self and others
  • Extended lunch periods and early departures
  • Workplace accidents and injury

A clear policy is a necessity

Whether or not your organisation decides to introduce drug testing, an alcohol and other drug policy (that includes pharmaceutical drugs) is a must.

Details about drug testing

Do I have to test my workplace?

Unless you are directed by a specific work order or code of practice, such as that set out within the construction, road and rail transport, aviation and mining industries, then the decision to drug test or not is up to your organisation.

Can a drug test tell how much of what drug was used, or exactly when it was used?

No. Apart from alcohol breath tests, drug tests don’t measure impairment. Results are dependent on several factors, such as the strength of the drug, how it was taken, metabolism, individual drug use patterns and what type of test was used.

What kinds of tests are there?

Common tests in Australia are saliva, urine, and breath.
Saliva test: informs if ‘active’ ingredient in a drug is present. Does not necessarily indicate impairment but indicates recent use (in the past couple of days).

Urine test: informs of past drug use, such as that on leave or over a weekend. Does not inform if employee is ‘fit for work’, only past use. Accounts for an estimated 85-90% of testing in Australia. Seen as a detection method for recreational use and a deterrent against use.

Breath test: for alcohol impairment. Same principle as roadside testing. Breath testing rates for alcohol remain low, despite that nearly 80% of adult Australians consume alcohol, compared to 15% reporting illicit drug use in the past year.

Can I use a saliva test to detect the presence of a drug, then use a urine test to confirm the result?

No. Saliva and urine tests are completely different, with different cut off levels for detection. What each test looks for has been processed at separate rates and in separate parts of the body.

How are the test specimens collected?

Testing can occur on-site using ‘point of collection testing’ (POCT) devices, which is generally cheaper and faster. Samples can also be sent to a laboratory to be analysed, which is slower but more accurate and better at distinguishing illicit drug use from prescription drug use.

You may have a specialised on-site tester, a nominated and fully trained member of staff who conducts the tests, or you could send employees to a workplace medical facility for their testing.

What drug test result terms are used?

There are three basic terms you need to be familiar with.
Positive: this term can only be used with confirmation testing results using either a GCMS (gas chromatography-mass spectrometry) or LCMS (liquid chromatography-mass spectrometry). Under Australian standards, you cannot say a result is positive at a screening test. You must wait until it has undergone a confirmation test either at a lab or using specialised on-site test equipment.

Non-negative: used at a screening test (urine or saliva) to flag that a test is potentially positive. The samples need to be further tested using GCMS or LCMS for confirmation. Positive cannot be used at the screening stage.

Negative: when nothing is detected in the screening test or by GCMS/LCMS confirmation testing.

Do masking agents work?

No. All commercially available masking agents can be detected by a trained collector when performing an adulteration test.

Can synthetic cannabis (Kronic, Spice, K2) be detected?

Yes. Synthetic cannabis can be detected through saliva and urine tests.

What are estimated detection periods?

Windows of detection for different drugs vary depending on factors like:

  • How much was consumed
  • How it was consumed (smoking, oral ingestion, injection)
  • Body size of the individual
  • Individual metabolism
  • Strength of the drug
  • Age and gender
  • Overall health

Can someone refuse to be tested?

Employees do have the right to refuse a test, however their refusal might be detrimental to their continued employment with the organisation.

It is critical that a company has a comprehensive alcohol and other drug policy – which includes pharmaceutical drugs – that is widely known by all staff and linked back to their employment agreement. A good policy will ensure compliance if you chose to test and avoid any unnecessary conflict.

How many people should I test?

This is determined by the organisation and varies depending on the risk assessment of the industry. If your company operates with heavy machinery, the percentage of staff being tested should likely be greater than that of a company which only operates in an office environment. The percentage of staff tested generally rages from 10% to 30%, per year.

Can I target-test staff members, or does it have to be random?

Your alcohol and drug policy will cover this in detail and should stipulate that you can conduct both random and targeted testing. It is recommended that random testing be done across the entire organisation, but target testing is appropriate in situations such as an employee giving a non-negative followed by negative confirmation test or having been involved in an accident.

Should I have a zero tolerance policy?

Zero tolerance can mean different things. Some organisations understand zero tolerance as not allowing their employees any level of drugs or alcohol in their system or their employment is terminated. Other organisations understand zero tolerance as taking administrative action against every instance of positive testing. The most common position taken is that of a three strike policy, giving employees a chance to demonstrate that they made an error in judgement and are taking steps to prevent any further incidents.

It is important that your alcohol and drug policy very clearly state what is meant by zero tolerance in your context. Factors to consider include:

  • Allowable levels of alcohol or drugs in your body
    • For example, 0.0% or 0.05% blood alcohol concentration (BAC)
  • What action will be taken if an employee fails to return a negative result
    • Disciplinary action will be taken at every instance of a positive drug test (often a three stepped approach)
    • Termination of employment is considered, however the employee has an opportunity to explain their actions or reasons for special consideration
    • Immediate termination of employment