For a workplace drug testing programme to be effective, businesses need to find the best testing partners. But too often, businesses don’t do their due diligence when selecting someone to handle the drug and alcohol tests for their company.
Many HR and HSE managers see the word ‘laboratory’ and assume that all labs are equal. The truth is, the industry is currently unregulated and the quality of workplace testing labs in the UK varies hugely. Without care and attention, choosing the wrong lab could lead to unfair dismissals, tribunals, fines or worse.
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If you’re taking steps to put a drug and alcohol policy in place, you’ll need a way to find a lab that you can trust. With that in mind, here are six questions that will help you separate the good, the bad and the dodgy.
Six questions to ask your workplace testing lab
1. Who’s doing the tests? What’s the experience level of the people actually conducting the tests? The person taking the tests needs training and experience to take them accurately and efficiently. This involves a whole sequence of people who cut, extract and analyse the sample, and have different skill sets, and these people need about twelve months’ specialist training and supervision before their testing becomes routine. Inexperienced testers also struggle to interpret - it can take five years to build up the case-by-case experience that ensures a full and accurate analysis of toxicological data.
2. Who takes the sample? Some labs aren’t labs, they simply act as middlemen between the tester and the actual lab. This introduces non-scientists to the process and, since many of these firms take the samples on their own premises and forward them to the lab, it also introduces handling times and security gains. This question is all about the chain of custody - a process secured by witness statements, taking photo ID of the donor, and ideally taking the sample itself on the lab’s premises. Everyone involved needs to understand the chain of custody and uphold it - documenting the person being tested, sealing the sample pack to prevent tampering, and allowing third party observation of the sampling process to protect against malpractice.
3. What do you test for? This is the question that people outside the testing industry most often forget to ask. Not all labs test for all drugs. There are five common drug tests: cocaine, amphetamines, opiates, benzodiazepines, and cannabis. Is the lab accredited for all those tests? What about abuse of prescription drugs? Xanax and fentanyl are powerful, easy to buy, and growing in popularity across the UK. They may also violate your workplace drug policy despite being legal. Can they make sure they’re getting the right answers? The onus is on the laboratory to show repeated performance, and prove their capability.
4. How do you test? Are quality control samples run with every batch? They need to be, because quality control samples from an earlier batch will prove nothing when applied to the job in hand. It helps if you’re familiar with the process of hair testing yourself, understanding how the samples are cut, washed and analysed. There’s more to testing than just the action itself too - a good testing lab will anonymise the donor and securely log every person’s interaction with the sample at every stage.
5. How long will it take? Most labs can turn around a test in five days, but the best can handle it in two or three. Time is often money in drug testing cases: if you have an employee on paid suspension or working hours being lost to absences, you may need a speedy resolution to the case - without sacrificing accuracy. How fast do you need your test results - and if you need a faster turnaround, will it cost more?
6. What happens if the employee challenges the results? It’s vital that all the lab’s procedures are accredited: they need ISO/IEC 17025 certification for each test to demonstrate that they’re able to produce accurate and reliable results. Beyond this, you need to know if the chain of custody throughout the lab and beyond is solid. If the employee demands that their sample be retested, how will that happen? Will the lab take two samples at the first test, and retain one for a possible retest - or will the employee have to come back for a fresh test?
All of these questions are ultimately a way for you to answer one major question. When you take these results to a tribunal, you need to be sure the results are cast iron - that the case won’t turn on someone asking, “are you sure the lab did it right?”
A reliable, high-quality testing partner is a must in establishing and implementing your workplace drug testing programme. Ask your prospective labs the right questions, and be sure you make the right choice.
Selecting the right laboratory partner is a key part of setting up your workplace testing routine - but it’s not the only issue to consider.
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