Should Employers Alcohol and Drug Test Employees?

It’s obvious that a mine worker impaired by alcohol or drug use is a risk to person safety and the safety of coworkers. The same is true for airline pilots, truck drivers and dock workers. There are some positions where everyone would agree that impairment due to drugs or alcohol creates a hazard, but what about the secretary or the accountant? Do they pose a risk to the company or coworkers if high on drugs or recovering from a binge drinking hangover?

These are the kinds of questions that employers are asking themselves as they deal with a myriad of laws that don’t specifically identify the employees that should be tested

except in the cases of nationwide aviation workers covered under the Civil Aviation Safety Act 1988 and certain transportation and mine workers covered by state laws. Office workers are not addressed in any of the national or state/territory laws leaving it to the employers and tribunals to translate laws into practice to the best of their abilities.

Though we tend to think of office workers as not being in safety sensitive positions, the fact is that many of them are in positions where impairment would present safety concerns. For example, an engineer draftsman may work at a computer but miscalculations could lead to design errors that create a public safety issue.  The office assistant who is responsible for collecting and summarising critical data used by coworkers on the production line may also present a safety hazard if impaired. You can find numerous instances like these among office workers.

An employer must balance the risks that drug and alcohol use creates against the employee’s right to privacy. Another way to look at the problem is that there is a natural tension between an employer policy that prohibits illicit substance use and one that only focuses on limiting occurrences of impairment because they raise safety issues in the workplace. The tension arises because employers have a duty to keep the workplace safe whilst not unnecessarily restricting a person’s behavior outside the workplace or invading their privacy in the place of employment.1 This is a balance that is not always easy to maintain, and the mentioned tension is reflected in the two questions every employer must ask when developing fair and reasonable alcohol and drug policy and procedures:

  1. Should all employees be included in blanket testing?
  2. Should office workers be random tested?

Case law has established many times over that the Occupational Health and Safety Acts at the Commonwealth and state levels impose safety obligations on employers that justify blanket testing of all employees including office workers and managers.  For example, the NSW Occupational Health and Safety Act 2000 requires employers, among several requirements, to provide and maintain safe working environments and systems of work.2

In AWU v. BHP Steel (AIS) Pty Ltd. the NSW Industrial Relations Committee also said that employers should develop a rationale for identifying what constitutes a significant incident that justifies random or for cause testing.3 This rationale would apply to office workers as well as all other organizational workers. Any office position that can create a safety problem if a significant incident were to happen clearly should be randomly tested using standards meeting tests like the Saliva Drug Test or the Lion Alcoblow.

There are some facts that support including office workers in a random drug testing program from the employers’ viewpoint. Impaired employees are more likely to be involved in workplace accidents, to be late for work, and to use excessive sick leave all of which can place a burden on coworkers raising stress levels.  These results can lead to less productivity and inaccurate work. You have both a safety sensitive issue and a health issue concerning office workers.

Office workers need to be fit for work. The employer must develop effective blanket and random drug and alcohol testing policies and procedures that clearly delineate the rationale for testing any particular employee whether it’s an office worker or any other employee. The workplace drug testing program must be fair and reasonable and use reliable testing equipment like that sold by CMM Technology. http://cmm.com.au/index.php.

References

1Bartier Perry. (2004, March). Drugs and Alcohol – A case Summary. Retrieved March 20, 2011, from Bartier Perry: http://www.bartier.com.au/publications/publicationDetail.aspx?PublicationID=52

2Ibid

3Department of Transport and Regional Services (DOTARS) and the Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA). (2006). Report – Review Into Safety Benefits of Introducing Drug and Alcohol Testing For Safety Sensitive Personnel in the Aviation Sector. Retrieved March 21, 2011, from www.infrastructure.gov.au/aviation/safety/pdf/Final_Report_Drug_Alcohol_Testing.pdf

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