As drug and alcohol abuse continues to increase among the UK workforce it
still remains tabu, but policies need to be enforced to support employees with
problems. By Kate Rouy
In June last year the Police Superintendents Association called for a change
in the law to allow random drug tests to be carried out on all ranks as well as
civilian police workers.
Although some forces already have limited drug screening, with testing
carried out on new officers and those applying to work in particularly
sensitive posts, the PSA wants this extended further to carry across the force.
The public, it says, has a right to be sure that those who uphold drug laws
are not abusing illegal substances. "We are not saying we perceive a real
drug problem in the police service," said president Peter Gammon.
"But not only has it got to be clean, it has got to be seen to be
In the UK, however, such an open attitude remains the exception rather than
the norm. In terms of issues presented to an occupational health department,
the one concerning workplace drug abuse remains one of the most controversial.
Not to mention one of the most bewildering.
For those with only a sketchy knowledge of drugs, smack, charlie, disco
biscuits, blotters, whizz, wobblies et al may sound like a foreign language,
but the fact remains that substance abuse, both of alcohol and drugs, is on the
increase among the UK workforce. According to the TUC, drink and drug misuse
costs employers around £3bn each year, and will continue to take its toll both
on employers and employees unless sensitive alcohol and drug policies are
introduced to support employees with problems.
Drug abuse in particular is potentially a very grey area for employers.
Testing for drugs, while commonplace in the United States, is far less
prevalent in the United Kingdom, and is a highly controversial issue. Although
safety-critical companies such as British Airways and Railtrack have
pre-employment screening in place, as well as random drug and alcohol testing
for employees, the practice is the exception rather than the norm for the
majority of companies in this country.
However, employers have certain responsibilities, not least legal ones, as
well as those to other workers and the business itself.
Employers have a general duty under the 1974 Health and Safety at Work Act
to ensure the health, safety and welfare of all employees. If an employer
knowingly allows an employee under the influence of drugs to continue working,
and this places the employee or others at risk, then the employer could be
prosecuted. Similarly, the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 states that if anyone, including
an employer, permits the supply of any controlled drug on their premises, they
could be permitting an offence. Employers also run the risk of facing an
industrial tribunal for unfair dismissal of an employee whose work problems are
related to drug misuse.
According to the Health and Safety Executive, although screening is one
solution, securing the agreement of the workforce to the principle of screening
is essential, because of both the legal and practical issues involved.
Screening is only likely to be acceptable if it can be seen as part of an
organisation’s occupational health policy and is clearly designed to prevent
risks to the misuser and others. Rather, it says, a company is better to treat
the problem of drug abuse as a health issue rather than an immediate cause for
disciplinary action or dismissal.
The Institute of Personnel and Development, which has charted a significant
rise in the number of companies experiencing workers with drug problems, agrees
that prevention is better than cure and says employers cannot afford to be
complacent about drugs in the workplace.
"We urge employers to develop policies that address drug use among
their employees," says a spokeswoman. "Companies should aim to
prevent substance abuse by raising awareness through education programmes on
the health and safety risks. They should concentrate on encouraging people with
a problem to seek help at an early stage before accidents happen or performance
So, do organisations regard drug screening as a potential legal minefield?
"I think if employers embark upon a screening programme without giving
it a lot of thought and without discussing it with their employees, it could
be," says Graham Johnson, professional development manager at MTL Medical Services,
which undertakes occupational health provision for a number of organisations.
"We would not entertain doing drug testing without an employer doing
Openness at every stage of pre-employment screening is essential, he says.
"It also helps if the employer has a policy in place."
MTL currently provides pre-employment drug screening for certain rail
networks and bus drivers, "but also for some companies who have introduced
drug testing as a normal part of the pre-employment procedure.
"A lot of people coming for health screening will see drug testing as
routine," he adds.
Confidentiality remains the key, he says, with anyone failing a drug test
offered the opportunity to have his or her urine sample tested by an
"But people tend to accept it," he says. "My experience is
that unless it has totally thrown them, most of them know. But as an individual
I have been surprised at the number of fails we get. And those cut across all
Sharon Horan, OH adviser at Liberty, whose clients include gas provider
Transco, agrees that anyone coming for a health screening as part of a job
interview for a safety critical position should expect to be tested.
"Drug screening is fine if it is justified," she says. "But
all companies should have a drug and alcohol policy in place, as a matter of
National Drugs Helpline, 0800 776600. Free, confidential, 24 hours a day.
HSE Information Centre, Broad Lane, Sheffield, S3 7HQ. Tel: 0541 545500.
The Employment Medical Advisory Service of the HSE can advise on all aspects
of occupational ill health, including drug misuse
Drug Action Teams
Over 100 Drug Action Teams exist across England, made up of senior personnel
from health, local authorities and the criminal justice agencies. For details
of your nearest team contact: Central Drugs Coordination Unit, Government
Offices, Great George Street, London, SW1P 3AL. Tel: 0207-270 5776
The Scottish Drugs Forum 0141 221 1175
Welsh Drug and Alcohol Unit 01222 667766
Frequently asked questions
What should be done if it is suspected that an employee has a drug
Employees with a drug problem should have the same rights to confidentiality
and support as they would if they had any other medical or psychological condition.
What if they will not admit they have a problem?
It may be very difficult for people to admit to themselves or others that
they have a drug problem. They may well fear there is a stigma attached to drug
misuse and they may well fear reprisals if they admit to taking illegal drugs.
It should be made clear to staff that, as far as possible, drug misuse will be
treated as a health issue rather than an immediate cause for dismissal or
Should they be dismissed?
Disciplinary action may be taken as a last resort. An employer could be
judged by an industrial tribunal to have unfairly dismissed employees whose
work problems are related to drug misuse if no attempt has been made to help
them. However, they may need to be temporarily moved to another job if their
normal work is safety critical.
Should they be allowed time off to get help?
The cost of recruiting and training a replacement may be greater than the
cost of allowing someone time off to get expert help.
Who else can help them?
If an employee is misusing drugs, they should be encouraged to seek help
from the organisation’s occupational physician or nurse, their GP or a
specialist drug agency. In taking action, an employer needs to ensure the
support of other managers, as well as other employees. When the information is
gathered together and the relevant people consulted, then an employer will be
ready to take action.
Key elements of a policy on drug misuse
A model workplace policy on drug misuse may cover the following:
Aims – a statement on why the policy exists and who it applies to.
This must apply equally to all staff including managers and to all types of
Responsibility – who is responsible for carrying out the policy
Definition – a definition of drug/substance misuse
The rules – how your organisation expects employees to behave to
ensure that drug misuse does not have a detrimental effect on their work
Safeguards – statements which make it clear that: absence for
treatment and rehabilitation will be regarded as normal sickness; you recognise
that relapses may occur; the policy will be monitored and reviewed regularly in
consultation with workplace representatives
Confidentiality – a statement assuring employees that a drug problem
will be treated in strict confidence subject to the provisions of the law
Help – a description of the support available to employees who have a
drug problem. A statement encouraging those with a drug problem to seek help
Information – a commitment to providing employees with general
information about the effects of drugs on health and safety
Disciplinary action – the circumstances under which disciplinary
action will be taken. You might: explain that if help is refused and/or
impaired performance continues, action is likely; explain that dismissal action
may be taken in cases of gross misconduct; state that possession/dealing will
be reported immediately to the police and that there is no alternative to this