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Should you screen for drugs and alcohol?

Laing O’Rourke believes drug testing is key to cutting out accidents on-site, so should smaller firms be following its example? By Stuart Shepherd

If your health and safety policies do not include a section on drug use, now might be a good time to think about putting one in.

The recent news that Laing O’Rourke plans to run drug screening tests on everyone new to one of their group sites - subcontracted workers included - at some point in their first three months, makes it an issue for the whole supply chain.

All the more so when you consider that of the 114 people who showed up positive under the company’s random testing in 2006, more than 60 were subcontracted workers.

Working with major contractors might provide some of the best opportunities for smaller firms to develop best practice.

“We recognise that subcontractors might not have the resources,” says John Green, health and safety director at Laing O’Rourke. “That’s why when they come to our sites they automatically become subject to our drugs and alcohol policy and the random testing programme.

“Testing is only a very small part of the overall approach. Subcontractors get the same drugs and -alcohol information packs and induction training as our direct employees. We believe that through a combination of education, awareness, assistance and enforcement we can identify those who put themselves and others at risk.”

Nobody is going to turn up at the site office on day one and be surprised by this. Information on the drug policy and testing requirements - and the expectation that they will be complied with - comes with all the other material provided at tender.

Setting up screening

To improve their chances of winning contracts under these increasingly widespread conditions - and also to be more confident that it is not their workers adding to the statistics for failed tests, which is not good for anyone’s reputation - smaller employers may themselves want to introduce a screening programme of their own.

“Before they do anything else they need to get hold of an occupational health provider,” says Geoff Davies, a director of the Commercial Occupational Health Providers Association.

“The occupational health provider can help put a drugs policy together,” he continues. “It should explain why it needs to be in place, who it applies to, how it will be communicated and implemented and what the response to a positive test will be.”

When considering introducing drug testing the key factors at play, as with any potentially intrusive procedure, are going to be the balance between safety and the right to privacy.

Somebody operating heavy machinery is clearly in a safety critical job and the need to maintain that safety would almost certainly justify a requirement for testing. It might be difficult however to insist on it for someone in an administrative role.

The policy position on the timing of testing is also an issue. Will screening be scheduled, randomised, after an incident or will there be a combination of these approaches?

Mr Davies says: “You need to be sure you are doing it for a good enough reason and you need to think about the impact it could have on recruitment and retention.

“Construction firms tend to employ a lot of young people, many of whom might be using -recreational or ‘soft’ drugs at the weekend. If you were testing hair samples for instance they could come up positive a month later.”

When that does happen the employer must do what it said it would do in the policy, whether that is a one-strike-and-you’re-out line or something more sympathetic such as the offer of a supported rehabilitation that may be determined by a doctor’s report. Problems arise where a policy isn’t clear and is open to interpretation.

An employee who as a result is uncertain of their responsibilities couldn’t be held entirely to blame for breaching it.
“Testing is not just a one-off strategy,” says Dr Ivan Roberts, operations consultant at ScreenSafe UK.
“Education, awareness and the promotion of a drug-free climate at work need to be at the top of the agenda as does managing individuals with the dignity that everybody deserves during the testing -procedure.”

As consultancy and testing providers, companies like ScreenSafe have to meet a number of national guidelines. They must put control measures in place for testing procedures: results should be analysed in a legally defensible way, with accurate and reliable outcomes to standards laid out by the National Forum of Workplace Laboratories and they must comply with strict data protection legislation.

Thinking ahead

“All these potential obstacles can be overcome,” says Dr Roberts, “with best practice and a sound policy introduced in a thorough manner. You cannot just take a hard line and drive this through, you need to plan properly and get the involvement of everybody concerned.”

Laurence Thomas, online adviser for Business Link, notes that any firm employing five or more staff must have a health and safety policy.

“Look to incorporate a drugs use policy into this at the soonest opportunity,” he says. “It’s far better to have thought it through and taken appropriate advice before an actual issue arises.”

Do you have the legal right to test employees?

“Tread very carefully when looking to introduce drug tests in the workplace,” says Will Clayton, employment law partner at Hill Dickinson.

“Employers need to be sure that they have the appropriate contractual powers in place to do it, especially with existing staff.

“Attempting to impose a requirement that wasn’t there before, to submit to a drugs test, on an employee of more than 12 months service is a substantial variation to the terms and conditions of employment.

“Introducing a new term of that nature without their consent is essentially a dismissal and leaves the employer vulnerable to proceedings,” Mr Clayton adds.

Where subcontractors agree to abide by a principal contractor’s policies Mr Clayton says: “The principal on the contract won’t have the right to insist that somebody else’s employees must submit to a drug test.

“They would need to ensure they have that in their contract with the subcontractor, who in turn has it in their arrangements with the employee.”

Where that isn’t the case the employee could say that the test has nothing to do with them.

“The message has to be that if you are at all unsure about any aspect of drug testing, take advice.”

Related articles:

O'Rourke expands drug tests to include new staff

Links to useful sites on drugs policy and screening:

Business Link: Your responsibilities for health and safety

Business Link: Smoking policies, drugs and alcohol abuse checklist

Business Link: Smoking policies, drugs and alcohol abuse - Discipline, grievance and dismissal procedures

HSE: Drugs misuse Current legal base & any legal developments

Download now

Click on the resource box on the bottom of right hand side of the page to download a HSE drugs misuse at work PDF