At their 2019 conference in Glasgow, Scottish NASUWT members heard that local authorities plan to introduce “with cause” or “at random” workplace drug and alcohol tests to the schools in their charge.
Outgoing NASUWT president Eddie Carroll expressed reservations about legal consumption of substances that show up on tests months later, and other false positives from eating poppy seeds on bread, using mouthwash or handling contaminated banknotes.
Meanwhile, general secretary Chris Keates observed that the union had been presented with no justification or rationale for the testing to be introduced, nor clear communication about the consequences of a positive test.
Against a background of teachers’ trust and confidence in their employers sitting at a low ebb, a branch of NASUWT moved to lobby local authorities against the introduction of tests without consultation and negotiation. But how substantial are the teachers’ concerns?
The more prevalent workplace testing becomes, the more people will push back against it, finding a moral ground on which to object - but not a substantive practical one. We can all present anecdotal evidence about a drug test which was poorly implemented or interpreted, but that does not call the entire field of workplace drug testing into question.
Workplace drug tests are a useful part of safeguarding processes. The role, consequences, and fitness for purpose of the tests all need attention to ensure that the tests are fair and used fairly. As we’ve said before, workplace drug testing needs a proper policy.
The concerns are around safeguarding and communication. Schools and colleges need to make it clear why they are testing, and how they will proceed following a positive result. A drug testing policy that says “you’re tested, you’re positive, you’re out” is not fair. Test results need to be confirmed and properly interpreted if they’re to be of any use. Drug and alcohol use should be detected, and safety should be ensured, but the tests should be done the right way and for the right reasons.
Why not include a drug test along with the Disclosure and Barring Service check? If a teacher shows a history of using intoxicants in a quantity that actually impacts their capacity to work and fulfil their duty of care, that’s important - and it’s not unfair for schools and colleges to find that out. If they’re clear, they’re clear; if they can explain, they can explain.
Beyond this, it would help for the UK to have an organisation like the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) in the US, which could vet and comment on the specific tests being used in a workplace and their fitness for purpose. Rigorous guidelines about how a drug test should be carried out, and what cut-offs should be used, ensure that the tests themselves are fair.
There are absolutely valid concerns about how workplace drug testing policies are created and implemented, and unions are right to be concerned that the tests are fair and used fairly. A punitive policy which emphasises institutions “catching out” their employees is not a good one. But workplace drug testing is not, in and of itself, a bad thing. It can and should be used to help ensure the health, wellbeing and fitness for work of employees in any workplace - including colleges and schools.
Workplace drug tests have to be done well, by a reputable and reliable laboratory, and they have to be implemented in the right way.