Introduction

The social and economic cost of drug abuse in terms of crime, absenteeism and sickness is in excess of £20 billion a year, according to Godfrey, Eaton, McDougall and Culyer (2000).

The International Labour Organisation ILO (2000) have given the following statistics, which will make any self respecting manager sit up and take notice:

  • Absenteeism is two to three times higher for drug and alcohol users than for other employees;
  • Employees with chemical dependence problems may claim three times as many sickness benefits and file five times as many workers' compensation claims;
  • In many workplaces, 20 to 25 per cent of accidents at work involve intoxicated people injuring themselves and innocent victims;
  • On-the-job supplies of drugs and alcohol account for 15 to 30 per cent of all accidents at work.

It is not just illegal substances that can cause impaired performance at work. Certain prescription only medicines and over the counter remedies can impair concentration or cause drowsiness. Another legal substance that can significantly affect workplace performance, is used by 90% of the adult population. This substance is alcohol.

Legal

  • An employer has a number of legal duties to consider, when thinking about substance misuse within the workplace and these include:
  • Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974 poses general and specific duties to ensure, as far as is reasonably practicable, the health, safety and welfare of their employees. If an employer knowingly allows an employee under the influence of excess alcohol or drugs to continue working and this places the employee or others at risk, prosecution could result. Under this Act, employers have a duty to ensure that any person is not unfit through drugs or alcohol while working: Similarly, your employees are also required to take reasonable care of themselves and others who could be affected by what they do.
  • Management of Health and safety at Work Regulation 1999 impose requirements to assess risks, protect workers health and ensure safe working environment. This would include considering safety issues related to the misuse of drugs and alcohol in the work place.
  • Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 and subsequent amendments it is illegal for any employer knowingly to permit the production, supply or use of controlled substances on their premises except in specified circumstances (e.g. when they have been prescribed by a doctor).
  • Transport and Works Acts 1992 applies to transport systems of any of the following kinds; (a) a railway; (b) a tramway; and (c) a system which uses another mode of guided transport. It is an office for persons acting as drivers, guards, conductors or signalmen or in any other capacity in which he can control or affect the movement of a vehicle, or in a maintenance capacity or as a supervisor in a maintenance capacity on a guided transport system to be under the influence of alcohol or drugs.

Employers must also be aware that it is possible to fall foul of the Human Rights Act 1998, if inappropriate screening takes place, out side contractual and statutory obligations.

What's involved?

A one off drug and alcohol screen is not the answer to a company's problems with a single employee - it can create more legal headaches than cures! Indeed, random testing must be random - it cannot be skewed to target individuals or departments suspected of substance misuse.

Where drug and alcohol screening is undertaken, there must be a policy in place, covering the following issues:

  • Frequency of testing e.g. random, pre-employment, with cause
  • Use of prescription and over the counter remedies in the workplace
  • What limits for substances are imposed by the policy
  • Training and information has been given to everyone at all levels within an organisation
  • Strategies in place for dealing with positive results - rehabilitation or disciplinary measures?
  • Details of resources for those declaring problems

Where drug and alcohol testing is undertaken, a full chain of custody procedure is used. This protects the integrity of the employee, the employer and the person obtaining the sample. It is a legally defensible procedure, complete with quality controls in built. Chain of custody sampling is undertaken on urine samples and the results are available on the same day as the laboratory has received them. A full chain of custody procedure varies in length from 20 minutes to half an hour per employee.

The following substances can be tested for:

  • Opiates (heroin)
  • Alcohol
  • Cocaine
  • Cannabis
  • Methadone
  • Amphetamines
  • Benzodiazpines
  • Barbiturates

Chain of custody sampling CANNOT be undertaken when the employee concerned has no photographic proof of identity e.g. passport or photocard driving licence.

 

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