Earlier this year, a North Yorkshire agricultural worker was dismissed from his job after traces of opioids were found in a urine sample. He challenged the dismissal and won - on the grounds that far from being high on the job, he’d had poppy-seeded bread for breakfast.
Responding to the case on a radio phone-in, Hugh Robertson (a senior policy officer with the Trades Union Congress) said drug testing was an ineffective way to prevent employees from working under the influence, and could lead to more dangerous workplaces.
His logic? Cannabis remains in the system for longer than hard drugs, so workers will use harder drugs to avoid failing workplace drug tests. He points to similar issues in the prison system where inmates turn to synthetic drugs like Spice or new psychoactive substances so they don’t fail tests for ‘regular’ drugs.
Beyond this, says Robertson, calling into Talk Radio, workplace drug tests are “almost certainly a breach of the Human Rights Act because we all have a right to privacy.”
He argued that drug testing needs tighter controls, and more extensive regulations about when it can and can’t be done.
Are people actually turning to harder drugs as a result of increased workplace drug testing? If so, what can be done? Is greater regulation of workplace drug testing the answer?
Hugh Robertson’s assertions are basically right, but the details mean they’re not helpful to workers or workplaces.
The headline is clearly meant to grab attention, but his assertions are based on anecdotes and hot button topics. It’s one thing to talk about drug testing in prisons, but that doesn’t necessarily correlate to the workplace environment. Where is the actual evidence that harder drugs are being used?
The human rights question is similarly misdirecting. Robertson argues, what business is it of employers if an employee has a spliff or two legally in Amsterdam? Well, if you happen to be a pilot who has to fly 300 people home, it’s very much your employer’s business. The issue is not employees’ rights to privacy, but their responsibility to work safely. No workplace should be policing drug use for the sake of it, but if colleagues or customers are endangered or employees aren’t fit to work, there are valid grounds for testing. Working in a safe place is every bit as important a human right as privacy.
Being sacked for eating a poppy-seeded loaf is absurd - but that’s not the whole story. Whatever drug test a workplace uses needs to be fit for purpose and properly interpreted. If someone tests positive for opioids from eating a poppy-seeded loaf - not in sufficient quantities for any psychological or behavioural impact - that indicates the cut-off is too low for workplace testing.
Urine tests are particularly vulnerable to false positives in this scenario; they can prove ingestion, but not intoxication. A positive ‘point of care’ test like urine or saliva should have been sent to a laboratory for confirmation testing. The fact that the employee Robertson mentions was sacked on the spot is not a result of testing itself, more an issue with the employer’s existing drug policy.
And to that end, we agree: “drug testing must be part of a wider policy which encourages people to tell their employers if they have a drug problem so they can get help.” Punitive drugs policies in the workplace aren’t helpful.
If an employee is protected by a policy, they can come forward and say “I need help” and their workplace can guide them toward getting help, suspending them if necessary and with dismissal as the final option. This isn’t easy, particularly for small employers who may not have the resources for such a support program: it’s an ideal to work towards, while working away from the opposite.
Employers shouldn’t test their employees without a robust policy in place - nor should they create a sense that employees will be hung, drawn and quartered for making a mistake and indulging. It’s better to help your people than to punish them. Managers can say “your head’s in the wrong place, go home” without it becoming a disciplinary matter.
Nobody wants to turf an employee out of a job. According to the British Chamber of Commerce, recruitment is harder than it’s been for thirty years, with 81% of employers having difficulty finding the right person. Once you’ve found them, you want to keep them - and testing employees to catch them out, with an instant dismissal on the cards, isn’t the right way to go about it. The goal is to make sure that your employees are well, and working well and safely.
Workplace drug testing is a good thing, but it has to be done the right way.
Image (CC) Nikko, via Flickr
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