Inquiry warns of the perils of drug testing

Workplace drug testing could increase dramatically in the UK and become a
fact of everyday working life, according to the findings of an independent
18-month investigation unveiled this week.

The Independent Inquiry into Drug Testing at Work, sponsored by DrugScope
and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, predicts the UK "could be on the cusp
of an explosion of drug testing".

A Mori poll conducted on behalf of the inquiry found that 78 per cent of
employers would consider drug testing if they believed that substance or
alcohol abuse was affecting staff productivity. At the same time, 32 per cent
of employers believe that drug testing does not impact on human rights, the
poll revealed.

A Personnel Today/Alcohol Concern survey in 2001 showed that only 10 per
cent of 306 UK firms surveyed tested their employees for alcohol and drug
abuse.

The findings of the latest research come in a climate of little debate on
the issues and arise partly as a result of aggressive marketing by drug testing
companies, the inquiry warned.

"We know that testing is useful in specific safety critical and sensitive
industries. However, it is a quantum leap for employers outside of these
sectors to advocate drug testing of their staff," said Ruth Evans, chair
of the inquiry.

"We are in danger of slipping into a situation where employers are
taking on a quasi-policing role with respect to the private lives of their
staff."

The inquiry called on the Government to produce clear and definitive
guidance on drug testing at work, particularly the legal issues – something
that has been conspicuous by its absence.

In 2003, a report from the All-Party Parliamentary Drug Misuse Group
concluded: "At present, there is no real consensus or clarity about what
the aim of drug testing in the workplace should be."

The process of testing, which often involves collecting blood or urine
samples, raises significant issues of privacy and employers must take
particular care not to infringe an individual’s human rights.

In the transport industry it is already a criminal offence for certain
workers in jobs where safety is of critical importance – train drivers, for
instance – to be under the influence of drink or drugs while at work.

By Daniel Thomas

Inquiry conclusions

– Drug testing can have a role to play in sectors where safety
or public trust is an issue. But it has no role in the majority of workplaces

– Drug testing is expensive and has only a limited impact on
safety and performance  

– Testing laboratories need to be accredited. A voluntary
system is not acceptable

Feedback from the HR specialists

Neil Robertson, director for people, British Airways

– BA has just introduced drug and alcohol testing for all its
UK staff. BA Health Services will offer confidential support and treatment with
a view to helping people back to work. Breaches of the existing drug and
alcohol rules are rare, but even one incident is too many. (see page 3 for the
full story)

Angela O’Connor, HR director,
Crown Prosecution Service

– It’s a very tricky situation. It depends on the environment
in which people are working. We have no plans for a blanket policy on drug
testing. You have to treat staff as responsible adults. If a situation did
arise we would deal with it on an individual basis. A policy would not be
helpful to the morale of an organisation.

Gill Leach, partner at Blake
Lapthorn Linnel law firm

– Employers have to tread very carefully. A chief concern is
any potential employment tribunal’s interpretation of the legislation
surrounding the issue – it can be very subjective. Employers have a duty to
provide a safe working environment for staff and need to think how they
reconcile that with asking questions about their employees’ personal life.

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