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Everything you need to know about Workplace Drug Testing

According to UK Drug Testing, drug use is an ever-increasing problem for employers in the UK. More employees than ever are attending work under the influence of drugs and/or alcohol compared with 10 years ago. Additionally, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has reported that, back in 1994, 90% of UK company directors stated that alcohol consumption was a problem for their business including 17% who described it as a “major problem”.

As a result of this increasing trend, drug testing in the workplace is becoming more commonplace, particularly in industries where safety is paramount such as in construction, manufacturing and transportation. Drugs and alcohol affect the body and the brain with effects enduring for long after the drug has been taken. This can and does affect an employee’s work performance, even if they took the substance outside of working hours.

What is drug testing?

Drug testing in the workplace is often a difficult issue for employers to handle. However, it is becoming increasingly important in safety-critical businesses such as scaffolding, logistics, railways and construction where employee drug or alcohol use may have serious consequences in their workplace. Workplace drug testing can also be used in other industries to discourage drug use and promote a drug-free workplace.

Drug testing involves testing employees or applicants for a job to detect if there are any drugs or alcohol in their system. It mostly happens to ensure that workers are drug- and alcohol-free whilst working so that their judgement, performance and reaction times are not impaired.

The most common ways of testing for drugs and alcohol are through urine, saliva and hair strand testing. Furthermore, there are strict regulations to ensure that the testing is fair and consistent. Employers need to strike the right balance between the health and safety of not only the workforce but also the general public and an employee’s rights.

Scaffolding workers working after having workplace drug testing

Why are workplace drug tests used?

When a worker consumes drugs or alcohol, it is likely that their reaction times, coordination, concentration judgement and performance at work will be impaired. In most industries, but particularly high-risk roles with lots of health and safety responsibilities, this puts other people (as well as the employee themselves) at risk of significant harm.

Drug testing reduces the risks of accidents and injuries in the workplace by ensuring that employees are not impaired by drugs or alcohol while on the job.

Another reason why workplace drug tests are used is to ensure productivity. In fact, the HSE reported that this was the number one reason why directors were concerned about their employees’ alcohol consumption. Employees who have taken drugs or drunk alcohol either before or whilst at work may not perform their work tasks as well as they could, reducing their productivity. This lack of productivity can have an impact on the company’s overall success as well as the workload of colleagues.

Lateness and absenteeism are also increased when employees take drugs or consume alcohol. It can lead to an effect on workforce morale and relationships between colleagues. Poor discipline and bad behaviour in the workplace also increase with drug and alcohol use as a person can lose their inhibitions whilst under the influence. Such behaviour can affect a business’s image and/or their customer relations.

Aside from the reasons above, many workplaces simply employ workplace drug testing because they are required to do so by law. Some industries such as healthcare or aviation have to do drug testing routinely, which ultimately means that employers carry this out to comply with regulations and to avoid any legal liability.

Finally, drug testing in the workplace is not necessarily about trying to catch people out. It’s about promoting a drug-free culture and discouraging employee drug use. Drug testing sends a message to employees that using drugs is not acceptable and will have serious consequences. Drug testing will also help to identify employees who are struggling with substance abuse, which can then lead to them accessing further support to help address their issues.

Types of drug test

The most common types of drug testing used in the workplace are urine, saliva and hair testing. Both urine and saliva testing can detect recent drug use while hair testing can detect drug use up to several months in the past.

Pre-employment workplace drug testing

Drug testing is often a part of the recruitment process, particularly in certain industries. Normally, the tests employed at this stage are urine or saliva tests; however, sometimes hair tests are carried out for sensitive roles or very senior positions such as those in government. Hair testing would give a prospective employer a way of analysing drug and alcohol use over a longer period.

Periodic workplace drug testing

Periodic testing tends to occur in safety-critical industries and may be a condition of an agreed contract. Some examples include those who work offshore or those who come to the UK to work from overseas.

Immediate response workplace drug testing

Some businesses such as Network Rail use an immediate response drug testing service. This is normally in place with a random drug testing programme. If there has been an incident, the service attends within a couple of hours to test those involved.

Random workplace drug testing

Many businesses employ random drug testing programmes as a part of their workplace policies. Random testing works as an excellent deterrent for drug and alcohol use. Often, it becomes part of the company’s safety culture.

Random drug testing options include point-of-care testing (POCT). This type of testing works on samples of urine and salvia and shows instant screen results. If any results are positive, a laboratory drug test is taken and sent off to confirm the result.

Urine laboratory drug testing

Testing urine is a well-established method for workplace drug testing. This type of testing is used in safety-critical industries such as Network Rail.

Saliva laboratory drug testing

Testing saliva has always been slightly less popular than testing urine. However, in recent years, the science behind it has improved. The process is now UKAS 17025 accredited. This type of testing has some advantages when compared with urine testing as the sample collection is less invasive. Furthermore, it doesn’t require secure toilet facilities and is said to be a fairer test as the detection window is smaller when it comes to saliva samples.

Many employers are now opting for saliva tests as their first-line defence.

Essentially, the advantages of it can be summed up as:

  • No collecting of urine (less use of resources for collection cups).
  • Being able to observe the sample collection without infringing on privacy.
  • Able to be performed anywhere on site.
  • Immediate results.
  • No need for same-sex sample collection or observations.
  • Improved integrity (difficult to adulterate the results due to observation).
  • Detect recent drug use slightly faster than urine tests.

Urine drug testing does offer longer detection and is less physically invasive, however.

Breath alcohol testing

Some companies use breath alcohol testing alongside any of the other methods of workplace testing outlined above. Most employers will use breathalysers that are strictly approved by the Home Office.

Follow-up workplace drug testing

Follow-up drug and/or alcohol tests are often used when supporting employees who have known drug or alcohol issues. They could be used as a part of their rehabilitation programme, helping them return to the workplace successfully whilst reassuring employers.

Hair drug testing

This is rarely used for workplace drug testing as it is expensive and most employers use salvia or urine tests, or a combination of both.

Alcohol breath test on way into work

What do workplace drug tests test for?

Workplace drug testing should ideally test for the core four drug groups:

  • Cannabis
    The THC in cannabis can be detected in most drug tests for up to several weeks after it was last used. In chronic heavy users, cannabis can remain present in the urine for up to 30 days after the person last used it. For occasional users, it generally shows up for three to four days after the last use. With salvia testing, cannabis usually only shows up for 24-72 hours after it was last used.
  • Cocaine
    Cocaine can be detected in urine and saliva samples for up to several days after it was last used. Generally, it can be detected in urine for up to two to four days since it was last used, although for heavy users it may remain present in urine for up to 10 days. In saliva, it can typically be detected for up to 24-48 hours after the last use.
  • Amphetamines
    Ecstasy (MDMA) and other amphetamines (“meth” or “crystal meth” for example) can be detected in urine and saliva samples for up to several days after its last use. Amphetamines can be detected in saliva within a few minutes of use and can remain detectable for up to 72 hours. In urine, amphetamines can be detected within two to six hours of use and remain detectable for up to three to five days after the last use.
  • Opiates
    Opiates include heroin and morphine. In general, most opiates can be detected in urine for up to two to four days after last use, although in chronic, heavy users, this can be longer. Methadone generally stays detectable for up to 7-10 days whereas buprenorphine tends to be detectable for between three and six days. In saliva, most opiates can only be detected for up to 48 hours after the last use.

Additionally, workplaces can test for methamphetamine, methadone and benzodiazepines. These additional tests are often chosen if there is a known local drug problem (methadone) or if company drivers have to undergo roadside drug tests. Safety-critical workplaces often test for methamphetamines due to the greater sedation risk.

What are the laws on drug testing in the workplace?

Drug testing is legal in the UK, but there are regulations that employers must follow. An employer must justify their use of workplace drug testing if they are not already in an industry that requires this by law. They should ensure that the benefits of drug testing justify the impact that it would have on their employees. They must also ensure that any testing is done consistently and fairly.

Employers are expected to have a clear policy on alcohol and drug use and this should be communicated to all colleagues. This should include when and how testing will be carried out. The policy should also include what happens if an employee fails a drug test. Additionally, employers must make reasonable adjustments for employees with disabilities that may affect the drug test results.

Employer rights with drug testing in the workplace

Employers have responsibility for their workers’ health and safety at work as well as their welfare. Additionally, they are also responsible for protecting visitors’ health and safety or those who may be affected by their employees’ work.

These duties, therefore, include managing any risks that are posed by their employees being under the influence of drugs or alcohol. Employers are liable to prosecution if they knowingly permit one of their employees to work after they have taken drugs or drunk alcohol.

The misuse of such substances could have disastrous consequences for the employee and their co-workers but also for the environment and/or members of the general public, particularly in safety-critical job roles such as operating heavy machinery, ladders, using electrical equipment or driving.

Given this level of responsibility, employers can include measures to ensure that their employees are not a danger at work, either to themselves or others. This can include workplace drug testing. However, employers must seek the consent of their employees before they begin drug testing.

Employee rights with a workplace drug test

Unless the employee signed a contract upon beginning their employment that they agree to workplace drug tests, employees can refuse to undertake testing. However, depending on the industry, this refusal could result in disciplinary action including the termination of their employment.

Employees have the right to know the reason why the drug testing is being carried out, what type of testing will take place and what happens if drug use is picked up. Disabled employees also have the right to reasonable adjustments being made. Furthermore, the whole process should be fair and consistent, and employees should be treated with dignity and respect.

If there is a reasonable cause to suspect that an employee has taken drugs or drunk alcohol, or if there is another reason such as a decline in their work performance or an increase in workplace accidents, and they refuse to have a workplace drug test, the employer can take action against them. However, bearing this in mind, if they have never undergone workplace drug screening before and they have never consented to this, they could claim constructive dismissal if their refusal results in disciplinary action being taken.

Additionally, it’s important to appreciate that there may well be other causes for their workplace performance issues including fatigue, stress or physical illness, and these may also need to be investigated.

Consequences of failing a drug test

If an employee fails a drug test, the employer must follow their drug and alcohol policy and the consequences of the failure. This may include disciplinary action such as suspension or termination of employment. However, each case should be looked at individually regarding the circumstances such as whether the employee takes any medication that could have affected the results.

In some companies, failing a drug test results in instant dismissal, particularly in safety-critical job roles. Having said that, a positive result does not always lead to this, particularly if there is no clear evidence that the drugs were consumed at work. Additionally, the results of instant testing must also be confirmed by laboratory testing and normally employees are suspended whilst this investigation takes place.

What is more, an employer’s duty to their employee extends to the employee’s welfare including their mental health and well-being. If their potential drug or alcohol misuse is a result of long-term stress, the issue can become a medical matter rather than a disciplinary one. This also means that it is possible to retain the member of staff in the future subject to them taking reasonable time off to recover and seek specialist support.

Termination of employment due to failing workplace drug testing

Procedures for implementing workplace drug tests

Implementing workplace drug testing requires careful planning and consideration of the legal, ethical and practical issues that would be involved.

Some general steps to follow could include:

1. Developing a drug testing policy
Employers should create a written workplace drug and alcohol testing policy that outlines the reasons for such testing, the types of testing used, the procedures for conducting the tests and the consequences of a positive test result.

2. Educating employees
Employers must educate their employees about the drug testing policy including the reasons why it is to be introduced, what the procedures will be and the consequences of receiving a positive result.

3. Choose a testing method
Employers must decide how to test their employees in a way that is appropriate for their workplace. This is commonly urine or saliva testing.

4. Select a drug testing provider
Many providers offer workplace drug testing services. However, an employer must ensure that the testing provider is trustworthy and reputable. They should be experienced in conducting testing as well as interpreting the results accurately.

5. Train managers and supervisors
Managers and supervisors should be trained on the policy including their role in enforcing it. This training should also include recognising the signs of substance abuse.

6. Conduct testing
Testing should be carried out fairly and consistently with the support of the testing provider and following the drug testing policy established.

7. Handle positive results effectively
Employers should plan for what happens when an employee receives a positive result. This can include support for the employee as well as disciplinary action if necessary.

8. Maintain confidentiality
Employers should maintain strict confidentiality of any drug testing results and limit access to only those who need to know.

Workplace drug testing – The takeaway

In summary, workplace drug testing in the UK is legal but employers must have a legitimate reason for carrying out such tests.

Some industries such as transportation (including aviation, rail and maritime), construction (crane operators, forklift truck drivers), oil and gas workers (offshore workers) and healthcare workers (anaesthetists and surgeons) may require workplace drug testing by law.

Regardless, testing must be conducted fairly and consistently with workers being informed about the testing process and being treated with respect and dignity, especially if they fail a drug test.

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About the author

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Laura Allan

Laura is a former Modern Foreign Languages teacher who now works as a writer and translator. She is also acting Chair of Governors at her children’s primary school. Outside of work, Laura enjoys running and performing in amateur productions.

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