Does Random Alcohol and Drug Testing Really Work?

In 2010, the Tasmanian Coroner made a recommendation that all trucking companies add random drug testing to their alcohol and drug testing programs. The recommendation was made after a 27-year old truck driver lost control of his truck and post mortem testing showed he had consumed toxic levels of ecstasy. The trucker’s union spokesman backed the coroner’s call for random drug testing to minimise the occurrences of needless loss of life.1

Random alcohol and drug testing is a practice that Australian employers are incorporating more frequently into their testing programs.  Though some companies use only random testing, a better approach is to use either:

  1. Blanket testing done randomly or
  2. Blanket and random testing

The question is whether blanket testing alone is adequate or whether random testing is needed and especially in safety sensitive positions. To answer this question, refer back to the Tasmanian truck driver death. The federal and state law requires alcohol and drug testing, so the truck driver would have been testing for substance abuse at some time during the year. Yet he had toxic levels of ecstasy in his system at the time of his accident. Would random drug testing have prevented this tragedy?

It is much more likely it could have, if a random testing program was in place, and that is precisely why the coroner made the recommendation. Random testing may:2

  • Inhibit alcohol and drug use
  • Serve as a deterrent due to the possible consequences of positive results
  • Prevents use rather than finding fault after use thus significantly improving safety in the workplace
  • Serve as legal proof that the employer is doing everything reasonably possible to fulfil duty of care responsibility for harm prevention

Random testing also has been “…recognised as reasonable to avoid risk of subjective selection of employees…”2 This is a critical point because employers need to avoid any appearance that alcohol and drug testing is being used for purposes other than protecting workplace safety. For example, testing should never be used as a means of forcing employees to quit through intimidation.

It is for this reason that even employers who utilise blanket testing should also include a random testing feature in their testing program. For example, an employer would test all employees in the organisation, but people or departments would be drawn randomly at testing time. This procedure not only gives the testing program a solid legal basis by preventing bias, but it can improve program effectiveness. If employees never know when they will be tested, they are less likely to attempt to manipulate results by stopping drug use only for the days ahead of testing with drug use resuming once testing is completed.

In a 2009 case, a dispute arose between an employer and an Australian Workers’ Union concerning the extension of the employer’s alcohol and drug testing program to a refinery worksite. The company representatives wanted to implement:3

  • Companywide Fitness for Work program
  • Consistent companywide drug and alcohol policy
  • “For cause” drug and alcohol testing
  • Saliva and breathalyser testing
  • Random testing as a deterrent to substance use
  • Companywide disciplinary policy to cover employees testing positive

The company identified the specific groups of employees who would be subjected to testing and “…indicated that the number of random tests would result in around 50% of all individuals at each Safety Critical Site being tested in on year.”3 The judge hearing the case agreed that random testing is justified as a deterrent even if there had been no accidents to date at the refinery. Random drug testing falls within the duty of care provision of the law and enables the employer to exercise the greatest means of obviating risk. The court went on to explain that the drug program must be implemented in conjunction with an employee education program while continuing to work with the unions.

Portable and non-intrusive products like the Lion SD 500 and the DrugWipe 5+ make a random drug testing program quick and easy to implement. CMM Technology at http://cmm.com.au/index.php offers a range of products suitable for use at every type of employer location.

Does random alcohol and drug testing work? The courts seem to believe so and on multiple levels. Implemented correctly, random testing is more likely to identify employees presenting safety risks due to substance abuse and also acts as a deterrent.

References

1ABC News. (2010, February 25). Truckies Back Random Drug Tests. Retrieved May 20, 2011, from ABC News – Australia: http://www.abc.net.au/news/stories/2010/02/25/2829532.htm

2Goodwin, E. (2006). Testing Times – drugs, alcohol and the workplace. Law Institute Journal , 80 (12), 42.

3Decision in case of Caltex Australia Limited v Australian Institute of Marine and Power Engineers, the Sydney-Branch; The Australian Workers’ Union, B2009/10326 (Fair Work Australia Application to Deal with Bargaining Dispute October 19, 2009).

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