The changing use of drug and alcohol testing in the workplace

 Drug and alcohol testing in the workplace was once limited to monitoring safety critical activities. These activities require a level of performance which, if compromised by impairment of any sort – including the debilitating effects of drugs and alcohol – can be physically dangerous to both the individuals affected and their colleagues. In some cases, they can have additional harmful consequences to the general public and the environment.  Oil rig workers, train drivers and pilots all work in safety critical environments which require high levels of performance and therefore high levels of risk if standards of work are not met.

 Workplace drug testing, including alcohol testing, is now also used for business critical as well as safety critical work. This still concerns risk reduction. Not physical risk so much as the possible economic and social risks from compromised productivity, corporate reputation and staff cohesion. This reflects the many consequences that drug and alcohol abuse can have over and above the immediate physical danger that impairment can bring. For example, a truck driver whose drug abuse contributes to a road accident will put lives at risk as well as risking the reputation of the company he or she works for. A financial trader employed by a bank who completes a series of misjudged transactions whist under the influence of alcohol or drugs could cause immediate financial losses for investors and shareholders and longer term losses to the bank’s reputation.

 For companies considering introducing employee testing in non safety critical environments there is still the concern that it could be perceived as invasive and a way for organisations to interfere with their staff’s private lives. But perceptions of testing have changed and it is no longer a simple case of whether staff should be allowed to ‘bring the weekend into the workplace.’ Corporate drug and alcohol testing is a mechanism for supporting a company’s ethos both in regulated and unregulated environments and one of a number of measures which encourage staff responsibility at all levels as well as a means to help drive up standards of behaviour.

 How workplace drug and alcohol testing is introduced in business critical environments is therefore crucial to how it is received by staff.  Testing can help reduce accidents, increase productivity and staff commitment, but it won’t happen by simply bolting a testing clause onto an existing drug and alcohol policy. It is only though negotiation and discussion that drug and alcohol testing can provide a means of monitoring drug use, which also helps staff feel better about the company they work for.

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