Sober workers fired under "zero tolerance" policy

Five maintenance workers cleared by tests of any drug or alcohol use have been fired after facing what their union warned would be a "kangaroo court."

The rail union RMT says there could be industrial action after the workers were sacked over the discovery of empty alcohol cans and bottles in a mess room.

Maintenance company Metronet said the five had been sacked because there was "reasonable belief" that its policy of zero tolerance of alcohol had been breached.

RMT said the evidence against the sacked workers was circumstantial. Bob Crow, the general secretary, said none of those dismissed had tested positive for alcohol.

"The cabin where evidence of drinking was allegedly found is freely accessed by at least 60 people, including contractors, yet no-one else was investigated or tested," he said. "Our members are being used as scapegoats for management's own complete incompetence in investigating serious allegations."

Mr Crow said he would recommend staff be balloted on industrial action if the five were not reinstated.

Risks 135, 6 December 2003


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Pilots' union calls for peer intervention

Jim McAuslan, general secretary of the British Airline Pilots' Association (BALPA) has defended the safety record of airline pilots in the UK and criticised those newspapers which implied that pilots were "serial drinkers."

He said: "Pilots are outraged at the way they are being portrayed. Our phones haven't stopped ringing because our members, and their families, are upset by this slur. In fact pilots, as a community, are obsessive about safety and security and know only too well the rules about alcohol and drugs."

He added: "We are advocating a system used in the United States called 'peer intervention' so that any pilot who has any suspicion about a colleague's behaviour can have that colleague entered into a programme which is managed by, and supported by, both the union and the company."

Jim McAuslan said that another thing that would help would be a global standard on alcohol and drugs. "At present standards differ from country to country and we do need an agreed international standard."

The statement came after two British Airways pilots resigned after being accused of breaking alcohol use rules prior to a flight from Oslo airport.

BALPA news release, 13 November 2003

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Ruling upholds drug testing at work

A West Australia company's move to implement a "fitness for duty" policy which involves testing for the presence of drugs irrespective of any impairment has been upheld by the WA Industrial Relations Commission.

Senior Commissioner Andrew Beech declared that it was reasonable for Pioneer Construction Materials to conduct urine tests on its employees. The policy had been challenged by unions, who threatened to walk off the job if tests were introduced.

Beech acknowledged that randomly testing employees for drugs was a controversial issue and said the issue could be re-visited in the future. "Testing for the presence of drugs in an employee's urine does not establish whether or not that employee is impaired in the performance of their work," he said.

"Penalising an employee for having tested positive for the presence of drugs in their urine will always leave open the argument that even though the employee has tested positive for drugs, the employee has not been thereby shown to have been impaired and the penalty is unfair."

Risks 133, 22 November 2003

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Move towards work drug testing

Four out of five employers would be prepared to drug test their employees if they thought productivity was at stake, a survey found.

The research for the Independent Inquiry into Drug Testing at Work found that very few firms at present test their workers for banned substances. Ruth Evans, chair of the inquiry, 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 showed that only a handful tested their staff for drugs and one in 10 were planning to introduce testing within the next year." The findings of the inquiry will be presented to the government.

The TUC is represented on the independent enquiry panel (Risks 100). Unions have said workplace drug testing is a costly waste of time and an infringement of privacy that does not spot impairment, just evidence of exposure to drugs up to months previously. They warn the tests regularly turns up false positives and serve to divert attention from real health and safety concerns, like poor safety systems, under-staffing, fatigue and overwork.

Risks 116, 26 July 2003

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Australia: Unions just say no… to drugs tests

Australian employers are finding they are testing workers' patience as they attempt to railroad mandatory drug testing a work. Thousands of Qantas workers at mass meetings in August 2003 resolved not to participate in the airline's drug testing proposals (Risks 116).

They have asked the Australian Industrial Relations Commission to recommend that Qantas postpone implementation of the testing, and say they will support any worker disciplined by Qantas under the testing policy.

They want Qantas management to change the drug testing policy to one where workers would be tested only when they exhibited signs of impairment from alcohol or drugs.

Qantas had 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.

The airline angered workers by releasing its policy prior to a proper consultation process and have ignored the recommendations of its workplace safety committee. Labor Council secretary John Robertson says the targeting of workers who take sick leave amounts to intimidation.

"What Qantas is saying is that if you access your sick leave entitlements you will be treated differently from other workers."

"We don't support people turning up for work under the influence of alcohol or drugs, but Qantas is going about this all the wrong way." At Pioneer Concrete, where drug tests were due to start in August, members of the Australian Workers Union said they will walk off the job at the first instance of a worker being asked to submit to a drug test.

Employers wanting to implement compulsory random drug testing should be obliged to show a connection between the use of a substance and impairment, according to Kathryn Heiler, a senior researcher with the Australian Centre for Industrial Relations, Research and Training and a policy adviser to the construction union CFMEU.

Risks 118, 9 August 2003

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Airline drugs tests unlawful, say unions

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. In opening the case for the unions, John Haigh, QC, said that Air New Zealand's proposed drug and alcohol policy was unlawful and unreasonable, and breached the provisions of collective employment agreements.

Mr Haigh told chief judge Tom Goddard and Judges Barrie Travis and Graeme Colgan that the unions wanted permanent injunctions preventing Air New Zealand from implementing the policy, and a precedent-setting declaration that the proposed policy was unlawful and unreasonable.

Mr Haigh said "it is the plantiffs' argument that the means do not justify the end, and that the instrusive and invasive drug testing programme (in particular) without any significantly measurable benefits, cannot outweigh the fact that drug testing is highly intrusive of some of our most fundamental rights - the right to privacy, and the right to refuse medical treatment."

He added that drugs testing would not significantly reduce the risk of drug or alcohol abuse in the workplace, quoting the Canadian Privacy Commissioner who warned against "quick-fix" solutions, adding: "Are the really tough issues - workplace stress, ignorance, inadequate employee counselling and the continuing failure to treat substance abuse as a health problem rather than a social deviance - so threatening that we must pursue a course which undermines many of our hard-fought fundamental liberties?"

The court is expected to rule early in 2004.

EPMU news release

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Critics wide-eyed at drug tests cheek

A UK company is pushing a new gizmo it says will tell bosses if workers are under the influence of drugs or drink. Hampton Knight, the firm distributing the £10,000 US-built portable eye scanner, told business leaders the device is able to tell if employees have taken anything from alcohol and cannabis to hard drugs such as cocaine, ecstasy or heroin.

The Eye Check Pupilometer looks like a pair of binoculars and is linked to a computer which calculates pupil reaction times. It can then indicate if the employee's reaction time is impaired due to the influence of drink, drugs or fatigue.

Hampton Knight says a swab or urine test would then be carried out on any "suspect" employees who failed the eye impairment test, to confirm the presence of drink or drugs. One large UK company has already bought the device, which is also being tested by two police forces.

Human rights group Liberty said drug screening for jobs requiring "top performance" such as airline pilots was acceptable - but not for jobs that were not safety critical. Critics say employers should concentrate on making the job safe for Britain's overworked workforce, and not on policing their workers' behaviour.

Risks 126, 4 October 2003

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Police officers may face random drugs tests

The government is to reconsider introducing random drug tests for police officers in England and Wales. Ministers had rejected the idea last year but Home Office minister Hazel Blears has instructed the Police Advisory Board to examine the issue again following calls from the Police Superintendents Association.

Association president Kevin Morris told the organisation's September annual conference that testing is a matter of ethics for police who have to enforce the drugs laws.

However, the Police Federation, the organisation representing frontline police officers, is opposed to the idea. An Independent Inquiry into Alcohol and Drug Testing at Work, convened by the government and which includes TUC representatives, is currently preparing its report on the use of tests at work (Risks 100).

Unions have been critical of the tests because they don't spot impairment, frequently give false results, don't support preventive efforts and take the focus away from more pressing workplace hazards like fatigue, stress and under-staffing.

Risks 123, 13 September 2003

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USA: Injured worker drug and alcohol tests 'illegal' says court

The Ohio Supreme Court has declared unconstitutional a law that allows employers to give drug or alcohol tests to people injured at work.

The December 2002 ruling struck down a portion of Ohio's compensation law that made it possible for employers to deny workers' compensation to employees who refuse to take a drug or alcohol tests after a workplace injury.

Under the law, a worker's refusal to be tested would act as a presumption that he or she was intoxicated or under the influence at the time of the injury. The court ruled that a drug or alcohol test in these circumstances "violates the protections against unreasonable searches" laid down in the US constitution.

The state's union federation Ohio AFL-CIO brought the lawsuit before the court. The majority decision was exactly what the union was looking for, said William Burga, president of the Ohio AFL-CIO. "This law was not designed to prevent drugs in the workplace," he said.

"It was designed to deny benefits to workers." Business groups expressed dismay at the court ruling.

Risks 88, 11 January 2003

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Union victory on substance abuse policy

The South African Labour Court has ruled that transport company Metrorail invaded workers' common-law and constitutional rights to privacy and to bodily and psychological integrity by introducing compulsory testing for drugs and alcohol.

Dozens of Metrorail workers had been disciplined for refusing to be tested for alcohol since the policy was instituted four months ago. In a 21 November 2001 statement, transport union Satawu welcomed the ruling, adding:

"Satawu has never been opposed to negotiating a substance abuse policy with Metrorail, inclusive of a provision for voluntary testing. However the union will not accept an approach that seeks to deal with substance abuse in an authoritarian way."

Satawu briefing, 21 November 2001

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