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Don't let employers get the testing habit
If employers get their way, it won't be just your patience that is tested. An expert panel will soon make recommendations to the government on drug testing at work. Many companies are keen. Hazards editor Rory O'Neill warns that testing is a dangerous distraction that will be bad for your safety and privacy, and argues it may be their company, but your body is your business.
An unregulated workplace drug and alcohol testing industry has already made substantial inroads to UK workplaces. An October 2003 online survey by business information company Croner suggested 1 in 8 UK companies are now using drug tests "to monitor any potential substance abuse problems amongst their workforce."
If this figure is correct - and one UK drug tester has said they are "about right" - it would suggest the number of firms using drugs tests in the UK has more than doubled in a decade.
More companies are expressing an interest. Four out of five employers would be prepared to drug test their employees if they thought productivity was at stake, found a July 2003 survey for the Independent Inquiry into Drug Testing at Work.
Ruth Evans, chair of the inquiry, which will advise the government on its approach to drug testing, said: "There is growing pressure on employers to carry out workplace drugs testing but little evidence or guidance to help them decide if, when and how they should do it. Our inquiry will examine the legal, ethical and economic implications, and recommend a transparent framework for employers considering drug testing at work."
The survey of 204 firms found that while only a minority of firms currently tested their staff for drugs, one in 10 were planning to introduce testing within the next year.
A number of recent studies have suggested UK companies have a growing appetite for drug tests - and they would take a hard line on transgressors.
A March 2003 report from the Chartered Management Institute and Priory Group, found over half of the managers questioned (55 per cent) support random drugs and alcohol testing in the workplace. One in three managers felt that random testing would be an invasion of privacy yet over a quarter (26 per cent) of managers want to see those tested positively for drugs dismissed instantly.
Sober workers fired under "zero tolerance" policy
Move towards work drug testing
Australian ruling upholds drug testing at work
Ethical issues in workplace drug testing in Europe, a February 2003 International Labour Organisation (ILO) report, noted that workplace drug testing laboratories in the United Kingdom "report ever increasing demands for their services" .
But while the justification for testing is often given as safety, the real motivation can be less worthy. Troublesome workers have found themselves on the receiving end of drug and alcohol tests and disciplinary action.
The ILO report says: "Unions are also concerned that workplace drug testing can be misused as a convenient method for getting rid of unwanted workers. A recent case of unfair dismissal in the United Kingdom illustrates the point.
"A rail worker received much publicity after (correctly) fining the wife of a very high-ranking government official for travelling without a ticket. He soon found himself mistreated by colleagues and was subsequently moved to a desk job. He was sacked after allegedly failing a routine drug test and refusing to take a second one.
"The worker claimed that the company was afraid of bad publicity and therefore sacked him. The company claimed that the dismissal was unrelated to the fine, but the employment tribunal found in favour of the worker."
The use of drug and alcohol tests as a disciplinary tool is becoming increasingly common worldwide. In August 2003, Australian airline Qantas outraged its workforce by proposing targeted drug and alcohol testing of all workers who take sick leave.
Under the plan, the airline would test sick workers not just for illegal, but also prescription drugs, with workers who refuse the test facing dismissal.
A legal challenge to Air New Zealand's plans to drugs test its workers was heard by the courts in October 2003. Six unions, led by the EPMU, say the airline has no legal right to test its 10,000 employees for traces of drugs or alcohol. A ruling is expected early in 2004.
Australia: Unions just say no to drugs tests
New Zealand: Drugs tests unlawful, say unions
A Hazards investigation into existing UK drug and alcohol testing programmes at work found there may be trouble ahead.
TGWU reported concerns raised by bus and train drivers about employer insensitivity when demanding urine tests from women while on their period.
TGWU has raised concerns about "the chain of custody" of samples, something that is tightly regulated in sport, but totally unregulated at work.
Bakers' union BFAWU has been concerned about moves by a major UK bakery chain to introduce mandatory drug tests without adequate consultation. BFAWU reports that a trial subsequently discovered "there is no need for this type of policy and the cost associated with it."
Rail union RMT said it was concerned that Network Rail drug and alcohol tests introduced on safety grounds were instead being required after minor, non-safety related infringements. The company wants to increase the level of random tests from 5 per cent to 10 per cent of the workforce per year.
The London-based International Transport Workers' Federation said the trend in the sector towards "zero tolerance" drug and alcohol policies linked directly to disciplinary action "are a violation of privacy, and of individual civil liberties." It is urging national governments to resist pressure to introduce random testing.
Reasons to oppose drugs tests
Rail union slams drink and drugs "kangaroo court"
The European Commission's ongoing review of privacy laws is looking explicitly at the legal safeguards needed against irresponsible drug testing in the workplace, prompted by the increasing availability of cheap off-the-shelf drug testing kits .
One UK company says its mail order testing kit "will fit easily into routine medical screens Employers also use the kit after workplace accidents to exclude employee drug and alcohol use as a causal element." Do-it-yourself kits can be purchased online for less than £1 each.
The tests might indicate illegal drug use - but they might also give a positive result for a worker on prescription or over-the-counter medications (Hazards 55). And the economics aren't as simple as they first appear. Each test might in itself be cheap, but even in 1991 the US government was paying out about £50,000 in testing bills for each federal employee testing positive.
Still, new gizmos and do-it-yourself kits are appealing to employers. Breathalysers are already used in some workplaces. And UK company Hampton Knight is distributing a £10,000 US-built portable eye scanner, which it says is able to tell if employees have taken anything from alcohol and cannabis to hard drugs such as cocaine, ecstasy or heroin.
While the government hasn't yet expressed a view on drug and alcohol testing, it has shown an unhealthy interest on keeping tabs on public employees.
In September 2003, Home Office minister Hazel Blears instructed the
Police Advisory Board to investigate options for drug testing police
officers. And in October, the Prison Service announced it was introducing
compulsory breathalyser tests for its 45,000 staff.
Critics wide-eyed at drug tests cheek
Police officers may face random drugs tests
Drink and drug use can be a problem for workers - but that is no justification for workplace testing. Infact, closer scrutiny of workplace practices would on many occasions be more instructive.
A study published in the 30 August 2003 edition of the British Medical Journal, for example, concludes prison life is damaging to the mental health of both prisoners and prison staff. The paper notes: "The uniformed staff considered that stress was the most important thing affecting their health at work; an important aspect of this was fear of violence." Low staffing was also highlighted in the study as a cause of stress.
Reduce the stress and increase the staffing and you could almost certainly lock up the breathalysers for good.
Health and Safety Executive reports in 2000 and 2003 identified teachers as an occupational group struggling to cope with excessive workloads and stress - and there is evidence they are turning to drink and prescription drugs as a result.
A September 2003 survey by Wrexham council found teachers and other school staff are turning to anti-depressants and alcohol to cope with rising stress levels.
The council received 600 replies to 2,000 questionnaires distributed to teaching and administrative staff. Of those surveyed, 10 per cent were taking some form of anti-depressant and 30 per cent said they were drinking more alcohol than they used to.
"I think the problem of teaching stress has grown," said Paul Davies, Wrexham secretary of teaching union NASUWT. "In this survey 77 per cent said they were fatigued, 64 per cent said their workload was impossible and 30 per cent dreaded going to work."
Bad, stressful jobs can double the chances of a worker developing a "substance dependence disorder," concluded a US study in the December 2000 issue of the Journal of Applied Psychology (Hazards 77).
And a report from the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction, an official European Union agency, notes: "It does not seem too unrealistic to presume that the number of persons who use illegal substances for the alleviation of such work-related problems (eg. cannabis and tranquillisers) or to enhance performance (eg. cocaine, amphetamine, ecstasy) is on the increase in order to meet the ever-increasing requirements to satisfy standards of productivity and quality and to cope with work pressure and undesirable working conditions."
The 1997 report concludes: "It seems reasonable to suggest that the working conditions are codetermining factors which can explain drug use and drug problems, and that changes in their parameters will therefore have a positive effect on the drug problem" .
The GPMU's model drug and alcohol policy recognises this effect. It says: "It is accepted that stress at work can contribute to drug or alcohol abuse. We are therefore committed to identifying and reducing workplace stress factors."
The policy adds: "Research shows quite clearly that some jobs involve a much higher risk of alcohol abuse than others. The social pressure to drink can be stronger in some working communities. Irregular hours, travel and separation from the family, and the strain of a heavy workload are just some of the common job-related causes of alcohol abuse."
Illness caused by widespread work related drinking is treated as an industrial accident under March 2002 amendments to South Korea's industrial accident insurance scheme. After hours drinking with the boss or clients is an established part of South Korean corporate culture and is even encouraged by some companies to strengthen team spirit.
Experience shows more heavy handed approaches can have dangerous consequences. In August 2003, ScotRail fitter Crawford Tees, 46, hanged himself at home after being sacked for a breach of the company's stringent "no alcohol" policy.
The Amicus AEEU member, a father of two, lost his job at the company that had been his employer for 22 years after being spotted having a single pint shortly before his shift. Workmates said bosses at the firm actively follow and target workers.
Phil Dee, health and safety officer with the rail union RMT, whose members work in a sector where the law requires testing for certain jobs, says: "Our view has always been that education and awareness training - including associated lifestyle and shiftwork issues - should form the main plank of any drug and alcohol policy, and that testing should be used largely to audit the effectiveness of that training.
"Testing - particularly urine - is still a degrading experience for many of our members, and we are not aware of any evidence that shows it to be cost effective. Indeed, as the amount of testing increases, so the economics of the case becomes weaker."
In the NHS, a joint union-employer expert working group has negotiated a more enlightened approach. The guidance says: "Random testing of staff as a tool for managing substance misuse is not considered an appropriate form of action for NHS employers at this time."
Instead, the 2001 guidance focuses on rehabilitation, occupational health support, self-referral for assistance and addressing any poor work performance as a capability and not a disciplinary issue .
TUC has called on employers to draw them up drug and alcohol policies in consultation with unions, with an emphasis on confidentiality and assistance for workers with problems .
Health organisations recognise now that the best approach is to treat drug and alcohol use problems in the workplace as sickness or capability, and not disciplinary, issues. ILO's SafeWork programme says that drug and alcohol abuse is not only "an important workplace problem, but that the workplace is an excellent channel for the development of broad partnerships for preventive action."
Employee assistance programmes are increasingly common, many introduced by employers concerned about productivity and sickness levels and the medicolegal consequences of workplace stress. Others have been introduced in response to union pressure.
A new and more effective variant on this approach - member assistance programmes, run by unions at workplace or local level for their members - could be an effective part of this strategy.
Many of the better programmes were established in the US. In the 1980s, faced with the government's "War on drugs" - where the US drugs czar declared the most powerful weapon in the war was "the pay cheque" - unions needed to find a creative and effective alternative to the punitive zero tolerance drugs regimes introduced at work.
New York's Smithers Institute, an alcohol and drugs policy research and advice group at Cornell University, was established in 1990 and has developed numerous policies and programmes with unions, particularly member assistance drug and alcohol programmes .
It says the 5,000 plus local union-run programmes, using workplace "peer counsellors," are achieving better results than "professional" employee assistance programmes. New York-based magazine Village Voice noted in May 2001: "In a quiet and mostly unheralded success story, union sponsored member assistance programmes have become one of the country's most successful bulwarks against alcoholism and drug abuse."
Professor Samuel Bacharach, director of the Smithers Institute, told Hazards: "Our educational agenda has developed programs which allow labour and management to put into place the type of assistance programs that assure the individual plagued by alcoholism or other modes of substance abuse that they can turn toward others for help, without fear of retribution or loss of confidentiality."
He added: "Member Assistance Programs are built on the premise that labour [unions] can provide education, constructive confrontation, and access to treatment in an environment which would not threaten the worker.
"They use both volunteers and paid counsellors to direct workers to the needed professional help while ensuring workers that they have nothing to fear and everything to gain. To the degree that mutual aid and fellowship has always been the backbone of organised labour, nothing seems more appropriate to me than the expansion of such programs to every national union, every local, every plant."
Professor Bacharach added that unions are "the most responsive" organisations addressing the issue. "They've done it by going back to their fundamental ideals, by taking care of their members. They know it's better to do it themselves than let management do it. And they are doing more about it than most employers. The root of their success is caring."
It is an approach that has been adopted successfully elsewhere. In Australia, a building union initiated Drug and Alcohol Safety and Rehabilitation Programme has been "developed by workers for workers" and "uses peer education strategies, where fellow workers (site safety committee or other nominated peers) undertake interventions."
In Canada, autoworkers' union CAW negotiates company-funded workplace "Substance abuse/Employee and family assistance programmes" that are "designed to provide strictly confidential and professional assistance to help employees resolve their problems through a process of assessment, referral and aftercare."
For UK unions, it would seem a no-brainer. The alternative, after all, is letting employers take the piss.
A potent cocktail - TUC response to the National alcohol harm reduction strategy consultation.
TUC drug or disordered guide - how to negotiate a good drugs and alcohol policy at work.
Smithers Institute for alcohol-related workplace studies, USA.
Drug & Alcohol Safety and Rehabilitation Program, Building Trades Group (BTG), Australia.
Proposed contents of substance abuse/employee and family assistance program (SA/EFAP): Joint policy statement, CAW, Canada.
Smithers Institute for Alcohol-Related
Founded in I990, the New York-based Smithers Institute for Alcohol-Related Workplace Studies says its mission is two-fold:
To conduct basic and applied research on the relationships between work, alcohol and other drugs, and related health issues. Studies conducted by the Smithers Institute have examined the workplace as a risk factor for alcohol and other drug problems and related health issues. Studies have also examined the efficacy of the workplace as an arena for the prevention and treatment of alcohol and other drug problems and related health issues. The Institute is a pioneer in the study of Employee Assistance Programmes and Member Assistance Programmes.
To disseminate information on its research to students, labour and management, and public policy agencies concerned with the prevention and treatment of alcohol and other drug problems and health issues. In pursuit of this mission, the Institute publishes its research in peer refereed journals and practitioner publications, conducts workshops, and holds conferences.
Smithers Institute for alcohol-related workplace studies, USA.
Key features of the the intiative are:
It has been developed by workers for workers
The programme is now being implemented nationally, and is "achieving
a high level of acceptance and becoming institutionalised within the
industry." It is now a standard feature in all Enterprise Bargain
Agreements negotiated in some Australian states.
Raising awareness of safety and health issues related to the use of alcohol and other drugs. Workers are addressed at site meetings and shown the video "Not at work, mate". The message is promoted on site with posters, stickers, t-shirts and leaflets. On some sites the message is included in site induction training for all workers.
Increasing workers' commitment to alcohol and drug safety, by seeking to have the policy endorsed on all sites.
Training safety committee members, delegates and workers on how to implement the Program and intervene when a worker is unsafe or has problems.
In 2002, the programme was chosen by the United Nations as a world
leader in drug use prevention. Drug and alcohol programme coordinator
Trevor Sharp said: It works because it is designed by building
workers for building workers. We asked them what they wanted and they
Building workers built it. Its their programme
and they should be proud of what their hard work has achieved.
The Canadian autoworkers' union CAW "places a high priority on bargaining employee assistance and substance abuse programmes for the employees it represents."
This means getting employer-financed "Substance abuse/employee and family assistance programs" built into workplace agreements.
A model joint policy statement prepared by CAW says:
The (Company) and (Union) are jointly concerned with the personal health and well being of all employees and their families.
The (Company) and (Union) recognize that a wide range of personal problems may have an adverse effect on an employees ability to perform on the job.
These problems may include physical illness, mental or emotional stress, marital or family problems, substance abuse, legal, debt or other life related problems.
Almost any human problem can be successfully treated provided it is identified in its early stages and referral made to an appropriate treatment resource.
The jointly endorsed Substance Abuse/Employee and Family Assistance Program (SA/EFAP), fully funded by the Company, is designed to provide strictly confidential and professional assistance to help employees resolve their problems through a process of assessment, referral and after care.
Besides being strictly confidential, the Substance Abuse/Employee and Family Assistance Program is voluntary and encourages individuals to seek help either directly through the substance abuse/employee and family assistance representative(s), a union representative, a supervisor or a work mate.
Any decision on the part of an employee and/or family member to seek help or not, will not, in anyway, interfere with the employee's position with respect to employment or promotional opportunities.
Any employee who partakes of the Substance abuse/Employee and family assistance program will be entitled to all rights and benefits provided to other employees who are sick, in addition to those specific services and assistance that the program may provide.
Recovery: Substance Abuse/Employee and Family Assistance Programs, CAW, Canada [pdf]
Unions, civil liberties, legal and workers' rights organisations would seem to agree.
Drug testing is a costly and time-consuming
process that is often used by organisations as a substitute
for an effective drugs and alcohol policy. There is no real evidence
that regular drug testing has any effect on productivity or safety,
and branches should resist it.
The GMB believes that testing policies should only be introduced
in certain safety critical jobs, eg. driving and operating dangerous
machinery. Even in such instances random testing
should be opposed.
The available data do not produce sufficient evidence to show
that alcohol and drug testing programmes improve productivity and
safety in the workplace
tests currently exist which can accurately assess the effect
of alcohol and drug use on job performance."
Drug and alcohol testing constitute
an unreasonable and irreversible invasion of personal privacy and
Employers have the right to expect workers
not to be high or drunk on the job. But they shouldn't
have the right to require employees to prove their innocence
by taking a drug test. Moreover, there are serious
questions about the effectiveness of drug testing in improving safety
Indiscriminate drug testing is both unfair
and unnecessary. It is unfair to force workers who are not
even suspected of using drugs, and whose job performance is satisfactory,
to "prove" their innocence through a degrading and uncertain
procedure that violates personal privacy. Such tests are unnecessary
because they cannot detect impairment
and, thus, in no way enhance an employer's ability to evaluate or
predict job performance.
Employers may say that for health and safety reasons they
need to test workers for "impairment" due to alcohol, drugs
or medicines. However, the role of alcohol
and/or drugs in work-related deaths or injuries has not been shown
to be high and we believe these issues can and should be addressed
without the need for testing.
In the US, a December 2001 ruling in the Ohio Supreme Court said drug or alcohol tests after a workplace accident "violates the protections against unreasonable searches" laid down in the US constitution. The case was brought by the state's union federation, Ohio AFL-CIO.
In South Africa, a drug testing dispute between rail company Metrorail and the transport union Satawu ended with a court running in the union's favour. The November 2001 decision said the company had invaded workers' common law and constitutional rights to privacy and to bodily and psychological integrity by introducing compulsory testing for drugs and alcohol.
USA: Injured worker drug and alcohol tests 'illegal' says court
South Africa: Union victory on substance abuse policy
International: ILO SafeWork. Ethical
issues in workplace drug testing in Europe [pdf]
UK: GMB briefing on drugs and alcohol
at work [pdf].
1. Ethical issues in workplace
drug testing in Europe. Behrouz Shahandeh and Joannah Caborn,
ILO SafeWork, for Seminar on Ethics, Professional Standards and Drug
Addiction, Strasbourg, 6-7 February 2003. [pdf]
4. Taking alcohol and other drugs
out of the NHS workplace, 2001, Department of Health. [pdf]
5. Drunk or disordered, TUC,
December 2001. £15 (£4.75 to union members) from TUC Publications,
tel: 020 7467 1294. www.tuc.org.uk/publications
6. Samuel B Bacharach, Peter A Bamberger
and William J Stonnenstuhl. Driven to drink: Managerial control,
work-related risks factors, and employee problem drinking. Academy
of Management Journal, vol.45, no.4, pages 637-658, 2002.
Don't mix it! A guide for employers on alcohol at work. HSE
booklet, ref. IND(G)240L. The Health and Safety Executive's website
has a page on alcohol at work: www.hse.gov.uk/hthdir/noframes/alcohol.htm
The Drug and Alcohol Workplace Service: Ajoint Alcohol Concern and DrugScope, aims to increase the number of employers with an active and effective alcohol and drug policy. The address for both organisations is The Workplace Liaison Officer who can be contacted by ringing 020 7928 7377, by emailing email@example.com or by writing to 32-36 Loman Street, London SE1 0EE.
Many unions have issued excellent advice. If you are not in a union phone the TUC "Know Your Rights" information line 0870 600 4882 to find out which one is best for you.
HAZARDS MAGAZINE WORKERS' HEALTH INTERNATIONAL NEWS