Harm Minimisation Versus Zero Tolerance – Which Policy Should Your Company Implement?

The concept of harm minimization is one normally used by social and governmental agencies working in the areas of substance abuse policies and programs. It is almost always viewed in comparison to a policy of zero tolerance. What is the difference and how does it apply to the workplace?

Harm minimisation is a policy that focuses on reducing drug use by interrupting the supply of drugs and alcohol; reducing the demand for drugs or alcohol; and applying a range of strategies that lower the possibility of drug related harm. Drug use is viewed as an issue that is health related rather than a legal or criminal issue. This policy assumes that drug use will never be eradicated, and so it doesn’t make sense to assume it can and ignore the facts about the harms done as a result of the drug use.

A zero tolerance policy, on the other hand, views drug and alcohol abuse as a criminal and legal issue. The assumption of the zero tolerance policy is that it is not the primary job of government to reduce harms and instead promotes a policy of abstinence rather than tolerance. Penalties for drug and alcohol abuse can be swift and severe.

Counselling or Termination?

How do these models apply to the workplace when they focus mostly on public policies and procedures?  How the workplace responds to drug and alcohol use among its employees will have a direct bearing on its ability to 1) retain employees making significant contributions to the business, and 2) maintain safe working conditions. It’s easy to see that a harm minimization model in the workplace would focus on drug and alcohol and drug testing as a method for identifying the employees needing intervention, drug education and counselling even while they retain their jobs.

In a business using the zero tolerance model, the workplace alcohol test and the workplace drug testing would be used to identify those employees who should be terminated.  In one 2007 study that relied on data collected from US drug use surveys, drug testing in the workplace combined with severe penalties like termination led to lower levels of drug use among employees.2

Opponents of the zero tolerance model suggest that harsh penalties for failing any drug tests including the saliva test, urine test or breathalyzer test will lead to  behavioural changes to avoid detection or as shifting to other drugs that are more difficult to detect through standard testing methods.3

Australia as a nation has historically adopted the harm minimisation policy which focuses on prevention and reduction of drug and alchohol use. This policy is promoted by the Autralian Drug Foundation which uses a method of informing and educating the community in key settings with workplaces being included in those settings.  The belief is that “encouragement, respect, integrity and inclusiveness” are more powerful tools for reducing substance abuse. There is also the assumption that drug policies and procedures should not increase harms, but rather should promote a reduction in drug and alcohol use.1

Modified Approach

The best approach to workplace drug and alchohol testing in Australia seems to be a modified approach that combines some features from each of the two models.  Employers should promote a policy of zero tolerance in conjunction with an in-house employee education and counseling program. There should be clear policies and procedures that outline the consequences of offences while management retains the right to determine each situation on a one-by-one basis. In some cases where safety has been compromised and others have been put in jeopardy as a result of drug or alcohol use, immediate termination may be the best course of action to take.

A blend of harm minimisation and zero tolerance gives the employer and the employee the opportunity and means for dealing with each situation where it is determined drug or alchohol abuse has negatively impacted the health and safety of the employees. You can promote both policies and send a clear message to employees that drug and alchohol use will not be tolerated by conducting random in-house substance testing using portable products like the Lion SD 400 for alcohol testing and the Oraline for drug testing.

CMM Technology has a range of products at www.cmm.com.au. that can help your business implement and maintain a modified approach to substance abuse.


1 Australian Drug Foundation. (2010). Annual Review 2010. Retrieved January 21, 2011, from Australian Drug Foundation: http://www.adf.org.au/attachments/013_ADF2010AnnualReview.pdf

2 Carpenter, C. (2007). Workplace Drug Testing and Worker Drug Use. Health Sciences Research , 42 (2), 795-810.

3 Pidd, Ken and Anne Roche. (2009, July). Workplace Drug Testing: Why the Controversy? Of Substance , 7 (3), pp. 17-19.

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