Managing people

How effective is workplace drug testing?

Employee drug testing is one of the most controversial safety strategies in Australia. 

Alcohol and other drugs are known to impair performance and put workplace health and safety at risk. Workplace drug testing is a common strategy employers use to determine if employees are using, or have used drugs.

However, employers should be aware that it’s unclear how effective workplace drug testing is in reducing occurrences of work accidents and injuries. There is a considerable amount of industrial disagreement, and there are limited workplace drug testing statistics available. 

In addition, workplace drug testing in Australia is often seen as an invasion of privacy. As a result, drug tests have been the focus of numerous unfair dismissal cases put before the Fair Work Commission (FWC).

What is workplace drug testing?

Workplace drug testing refers to the strategies employers take to identify if an employee is using drugs. There are many different approaches used by organisations for workplace drug testing. 

These can include:

  • random drug testing

  • blanket testing

  • for-cause drug testing

  • a pre-employment drug testing procedure for new hires

  • post-accident drug testing

  • voluntary drug testing.

Why is workplace drug testing controversial?

There are two approaches to health and safety: attempts to influence personal behaviour, and attempts to address inherent workplace hazards. In the case of the former, employers commonly put the blame of any accidents on the employee or victim. The latter approach focuses on ensuring safe systems at work and forms the core of employer obligations under the Work Health and Safety Act 2011.

While employee worker behaviours under the influence can have disastrous consequences, targeting behaviour is regarded as ineffective due to its unpredictability and unreliability. The more effective approach is to create safe workplace systems. This is done through safe work design, training, operating procedures and improving the overall working environment.

The reason workplace drug testing is controversial is that it addresses behaviour, rather than working conditions. While intoxicated individuals can be a contributor to accidents and injuries, workplace drug testing alone will not prevent work-related illness or injury. 

For example, a workplace could feature inadequately trained and supervised employees working 12-hour shifts, six days a week in a stressful environment. In this case, accidents are still likely to happen, even despite a regular random drug testing regime. 

In addition to targeting behaviour rather than conditions, drug testing is often viewed as an invasion of privacy.

How do workplace drug tests work?

Workplace drug tests are conducted either through blood tests, urine tests or saliva tests. Each drug test has a different testing window, and each test also varies in its accuracy to determine drugs in the system.

Regardless of the type of test, the general workplace drug testing procedure should follow the two Australian standards for drug testing:

Drug testing is typically conducted by in-house staff or a professional provider, who performs the test and collects the sample. The sample is then sent to an accredited laboratory, which will analyse and provide the results.

Carrying out workplace drug testing

It may be the case that an employer understands the risks and limitations associated with workplace drug testing and still chooses to proceed. In this case, employers need to make decisions around when and how drug testing is conducted.

Testing could be done randomly, only after an incident occurs, or before beginning high-risk work. Testing could also be conducted if there appears to be ‘reasonable cause’. An example of this is when a person’s behaviour or appearance provides grounds for believing they are intoxicated. In addition, decisions need to be made as to the type of testing. Employers will also need to decide what happens if an employee declines a drug test.

Once these decisions are made, employers should outline these in a workplace drug testing policy. This policy should be clearly communicated to employees, along with any updates to the policy.

When to call in a third-party provider

According to the Fair Work Commission, it is not best practice for an employee’s direct manager or colleague to take a sample. In addition, while there are drug testing kits available in Australia, these can be unreliable. This is often the case if the test is administered by an untrained professional and the sample is not analysed by an accredited lab.

To protect an employee’s privacy and comply with best practices, employers can choose to call in a third-party provider to conduct workplace drug testing. There are many providers out there, so it’s important to conduct research and consult a range of providers. The National Association of Testing Authorities (NATA) has a database of suitable and accredited testing providers.

Can employees refuse workplace drug testing?

Under workplace drug testing laws in Australia, employers can insist on drug testing as a term of employment, provided it is reasonable. On the other hand, workplace drug testing laws also state that employees have the right to decline a drug test.

If an employee declines a test, they can face disciplinary action provided the consequences are outlined clearly in your policy. A company could argue to the FWC that an employee’s refusal of a reasonable request to undergo a drug test serves as grounds for dismissal.

Because of this, a workplace drug testing policy should also state what happens if an employee declines a test. Without this, employers open themselves up to the risk of an unfair dismissal claim.

Workplace drug testing can be tricky to navigate and is often the source of controversy. To protect your organisation and employees, it’s imperative to have a clear workplace drug testing policy. If you need help creating a best practice policy, download Workplace's drug and alcohol policy template here.

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