Skip to Content, Skip to Navigation

Safeguard OSH Solutions - Thomson Reuters

Safeguard OSH Solutions - Thomson Reuters

Weeding out

PETER BATEMAN introduces a debate on the merits of pre-employment drug testing.

In the same week as this year’s Safeguard conference the NZ Herald published an opinion piece by Jarrod Gilbert in which he questioned the continued claim by many employers that they use pre-employment drug testing on the grounds of safety.

His argument in essence is that while no one wishes to work with colleagues who are impaired, and therefore a risk to themselves and others, it is disingenuous of employers to cry “safety!” to justify pre-employment drug tests.

Why? Because someone who smoked a joint three days beforehand would show up as positive, while any impairment caused by the joint would have vanished within a few hours. In other words, he argued, employers can deny someone a job if they test positive, but they should own up that they are really making a moral judgment – “recreational drug users are bad people and we won’t employ them” – rather than claiming that a recreational user poses a safety risk.

We thought this is a topic worthy of debate, not least because workplace drug testing has become so entrenched that it has become part of the furniture and goes largely unquestioned as a method of mitigating the risk of someone turning up for work impaired.

In that spirit we decided to put the issue up for debate. Here is the moot:

If workplace drug and alcohol testing is to be used on the grounds of safety then it must focus on impairment, which renders pre-employment testing meaningless as a safety measure.”

We had to invite quite a few people to accept the challenge of responding to this moot before we could find four who would, because several of those we approached had firm views on workplace drug testing but ducked for cover when it came to putting those views in print. Interesting!

So our thanks to the four people who were prepared to respond in detail to the moot.

Engage to understand

There’s no place in a high-risk work environment for someone who doesn’t have their mind in the game and isn’t fully fit for work, either physically or mentally, for whatever reason.

We have a duty of care to our people to manage the health and safety risks arising from alcohol and other drugs in the workplace, and testing regimes are one part of the jigsaw puzzle of how we address this issue in our workplaces.

When I think back to when I was first involved in the implementation of drug and alcohol policies it was interesting to hear the perceptions of what a testing regime would address and resolve. I had discussions with workers who were happy that testing was being introduced on the basis that people would be held to account and those that they knew to be using drugs or drinking too much would be “caught”.

They weren’t prepared to dob in, as they saw it, the people they knew were impaired, who were non-productive and a risk to themselves and their workmates. Their view was that the testing regime would resolve it – even though pre-employment testing was often seen as a test of initiative.

We are starting to see a more mature approach developing. There’s better education around substance abuse and its impact beyond the workplace, what impairment looks like and other factors that may be causing it.

Teams are now less likely to tolerate someone who they know is using drugs or turns up to work so hung over they’re of no use for the day. They are more likely to question when they see behaviour which is out of character or unusual because they understand the signs of impairment and that it can arise from a range of other issues as well as substance abuse.

Teams that work closely together and know each other are also more prepared to question things, especially if they see a change in someone.

The first approach isn’t “you need a drug test” but more along the lines of “what’s happened, you’re not yourself today?” Some may think this is a fairly subjective approach, but give it a try – the answer is sometimes surprising:

  • • 
    the quiet person in the team is agitated and a bit hyperactive today; surprisingly, it’s their response to a lack of sleep the night before;
  • • 
    the distracted person is focusing on a domestic dispute that happened just before leaving home that morning;
  • • 
    the person speeding into site had slept in because he’d been called out to other jobs during the night and was worried he was late for the day shift.

A drug test wasn’t required in these situations but should any of these people have been at work? Fatigue and mental distraction are definitely impairment issues.

As with any workplace risk we have to look at the outcome we want to achieve. We want people in our workplaces who are fit for work, physically and mentally. If we are impaired in any way we shouldn’t be at work as we are a risk to ourselves and others.

However, as we often do with health and safety we focus on the physical aspects, even in relation to substance abuse, and don’t deal with the underlying issues that cause these behaviours. How do we support our people in the face of issues that impact on their mental health?

I don’t have the answers but I think we should continue to engage and involve our people to understand the issues more fully, and hopefully come up with some approaches to help us move forward.

Fiona Ewing, national safety director, Forest Industry Safety Council.

Multiple benefits

As a practitioner in an area where use of all drug types (cannabis, meth and alcohol) is high, and most employment will involve the use of machinery, we need to mitigate the risk these people pose, particularly when we know that accidents in similar industries in the area have been attributed to the misuse of substances.

We cannot knowingly employ these people without pre-employment testing, including provision for random, post-incident and reasonable cause.

When we talk about drugs that are a workplace hazard, people often think of the usual suspects like marijuana, cocaine, heroin, ice, and anti-depressants. What many don’t realise is that the side effects from prescribed medications can pose a risk too. The problem with pain relievers, especially the powerful ones, is that most of them are opioids. The more common side effects of opioids include drowsiness, dizziness, and nausea.

Employers with drug policies in place also need to realise that prescription medication use or abuse in the workplace can be the toughest drug problem they will have to face. Not all people who take prescription medications do so to relieve symptoms. Because they are so addictive, prescription medication abuse is one of the fastest growing drug problems. A pre-employment application form including a declaration for prescribed medication and dosage is a useful tool. Companies that have implemented a comprehensive drug testing programme have consistently reported an overall improvement in job performance as well as employee morale. Absenteeism, theft and behavioural problems that are often associated with drug use decline. Staff retention is also a major benefit and boosts the reputation of the organisation.

Pat Copp is a health and safety consultant based in Marlborough.

Focus on the risk

Achieving healthier and safer workplaces is a wicked challenge, and wicked challenges demand more than simplistic solutions. What works is focusing on underlying issues, and almost always doing more than one thing.

Drug and alcohol induced impairment at work is part of that wicked challenge, and thus demands more than a single solution.

Workplace drug screening is a rudimentary tool to identify consumption, not impairment. There is no doubt merit in Jarrod Gilbert’s concerns about the potential disconnect between a positive result for cannabis and impairment. However, people are using an increasing range of drugs, including alcohol, where a positive result and impairment are deemed analogous.

His article is a constructive prompt for workplaces to reflect on how they apply their drug policies, and to stay abreast of emerging drug testing methodologies. But I would guard against the extreme counter conclusion, that employers should have no interest in robust drug and alcohol management.

I would argue that rather than singly debating the efficacy of drug screening, a more useful discussion for everyone in the workplace is how we can more effectively manage the risk of impairment.

That discussion gives us a fighting chance of getting beyond a moral-social-technical debate about the acceptability of drugs, and to focus more on shared responsibilities across workers and managers in reducing the causes and impacts of impairment.

There are a bunch of causes of impairment that affect a person’s physical and mental capacity and capability to work in a healthy and safe way. We need to understand these causes if we are to tackle them effectively. Mental causes of impairment include fatigue, stress, mental health, exposure to workplace substances, and of course, drugs and alcohol. There are also physical causes of impairment, such as reduced mobility due to obesity or reduced strength due to ageing.

Equally, when something goes wrong, not only is it irrelevant to those harmed if the person was impaired by drugs or a teething 2-year old, drug testing won’t resolve the issue for the future. Consequently, a more important and challenging question is: how we design our work so that people can fail safely? Regardless of why the last person in the chain may have been impaired.

Both the cause and impact sides of the impairment risk are important to prevent serious harm to our people.

So in tackling impairment, robust drug policies and procedures are part of the mix, but not the only part. They are relevant, but insufficient in isolation. We need to challenge ourselves to test the quality and balance of our prevention approaches. How well have we thought about multiple causes of impairment beyond drugs?

We also need to challenge ourselves to test the quality of our mitigation controls. What happens when someone who’s impaired makes a mistake? Is our risk control more than simply 100% of people being 100% focused 100% of the time? Is our workplace a safe place to fail?

Simplistic solutions to impairment might feel like progress, but comprehensive risk management will deliver more.

Francois Barton is executive director of the Business Leaders’ Health & Safety Forum.

Impairment’s the thing

The limitation of pre-employment testing is illustrated using the example of alcohol. Few people would have much faith in the results of a pre-employment test for alcohol use. Even somebody with a severe alcohol problem could pass the test simply by staying sober long enough. Passing such a test would provide a prospective employer with a false sense of confidence, making the exercise meaningless.

The important question is: how safe is someone at work? Are they a hazard to themselves and/or others? Any testing for drug or alcohol-induced impairment should be in the here and now. Pre-employment testing should not be a condition of employment.

Real-time drug and alcohol impairment testing can be done through an oral saliva swab and an alcohol breath analyser. Testing of urine, hair and blood is favoured by some as a more rigorous test and is sold by drug-testing companies as the best method for avoiding costly health and safety liability risks.

But these tests do not measure a person’s impairment on the job, and sometimes give historical readings which can be irrelevant. Hair samples, for instance, can show drug use within a three-month timeframe, but do not prove the person is still using. Drugs like cannabis show up long after the effects have worn off.

In effect, these tests are more about catching workers to satisfy company risk parameters. But they do nothing to address the fundamental question, which is whether a person is impaired at work.

What’s really needed is a meaningful solution that deals with impairment through appropriate tests and, crucially, provides drug and alcohol education for workers. This involves high quality information using scientifically sound visual, oral and written resources.

Industry, workers, unions and community groups need to work together to create a just and fair culture in workplaces. If testing is used to assess impairment, we should use a method which workers find acceptable. E tū supports the use of saliva testing, which provides relevant information on real-time impairment. This is a fair test, which encourages workers to have confidence in the system and would identify workplace drug and alcohol problems.

There is an epidemic of drug and alcohol misuse. We need to recognise this as a health issue. Employers have a vital role to play here, through fair systems for their workers, and rehabilitation options which they support financially. Instead, we have a punitive approach which stigmatises and penalises people who fail a drug test despite no proof they are impaired, or likely to be if they are at work.

Finally, we must not underestimate the effectiveness of workers doing what’s right and calling each other out when they suspect someone is impaired. My union has taken a lead role, developing a DVD which provides workers with an education tool to sit alongside a module to get the message across: drug and alcohol use at work is a health and safety issue; it is dangerous and everyone has a role to play in keeping worksites safe. That includes being drug and alcohol-free at work.

Joe Gallagher is industry coordinator – communications with E tū union.

Survey results

We offered the simplest of online surveys and 46 people responded. Congratulations to Denise Kay from Nelson, the randomly drawn winner of the recent IOSH book Health and Safety in a Changing World.

The moot was the same:

“If workplace drug and alcohol testing is to be used on the grounds of safety then it must focus on impairment, which renders pre-employment testing meaningless as a safety measure.”

Q1: Do you agree with the moot?

YesNoNot sure

The second question asked why. Here is an edited selection of the responses.


Because it is the impairment of the ability to make an appropriate decision (ie assess a risk effectively) that will result in the incident occurring. Testing at pre-employment is simply being used by lazy employers to weed out potential problems instead of effectively managing the risk. If you are going to test and you have a clearly defined high risk environment why not test for drugs, alcohol and fatigue, using a test that indicates, in the case of drugs and alcohol, how recently they were consumed? That time indicator is more likely to give a better idea of impairment if the use has been in the previous 8-12 hours.

Because pre-employment testing is a measure of something in the past, and not in any way an indication of something in the present/future.

Because in six years of investigating accidents there was only one where there were causal factors linked to drug impairment (speed). Another was due to prescription drugs (Codeine 40mg).

Many alcoholics are functional. Many people I know are occasional weed smokers with little to no impact. Alcohol is a far worse evil.

If not judging impairment (and remember fatigue, stress, prescription drugs) then it is just a means to discriminate and prevent some people being employed.

Police roadside testing focuses on the amount of alcohol in your system, which links to impairment. The presence of a product does not mean impairment.

The pre-employment test could be carried out and be negative. Then the prospective employee decides to celebrate by smoking a joint after the test but before commencing work.

How a prospective or current employee decides to spend their spare time is up to them. As long as they are not impaired for work purposes then it should not impinge on their employment. Also, cannabis is showing promising results as a chronic pain reliever with fewer side effects than opioids.


Pre-employment testing alerts employers to chronic users. These are the people who are going to come to work impaired!

I’d want to see more research on the long term effects of smoking cannabis and if it reduces cognitive ability and thus makes someone less safe. Having said that, I do agree with using saliva to “screen” for random drug testing as it is indicative of impairment, and if you get a non-negative on that then proceed to full testing.

If a person is a user of illegal or prescription drugs or alcohol a prospective or current employer needs to know – it forms part of an objective risk assessment that is implied by the “reasonably practicable” test. Drugs and alcohol might result in impaired performance that could result in harm to the user or other people. They are therefore the cause of a “hazard” (individual behaviour) as defined by the Act. This is not to say that employment should be refused or terminated on the grounds that alcohol or drugs are present. The nature of the work activity, workplace and other personal factors must also be taken into account. The greater the risk, the more the employer must do before any event that could result in harm.

Limits the introduction of risk into an organisation and is also seen by existing employees that you are serious about their safety.

About 10% of those we test at pre-employment return a non-negative result for cannabinoids. This is often in spite of their statement of not having had any usage for more than two weeks.

If people test positive then it shows that they use drugs and there can be other issues and behaviours that go with drug use.

The pre-employment test allows the employer to assess the risk of engaging that person. What the employer does not know is whether the prospective employee is a habitual user. The pre-employment test is a stage of risk assessment.

To argue that past behaviour is not relevant to possible future behaviour is flawed. For instance how many of us would be comfortable to employ someone in a driving capacity who has in the past had their licence revoked for dangerous driving? Further, how do we meet our due diligence obligations if we fail to take the reasonably practicable step of pre-employment testing? I am not arguing it is perfect, but particularly in the case of cannabis, until there is a number that signals a level of impairment rather than previous use it is what we have to do our jobs of keeping people safe.

It’s as much an HR issue as a H&S issue. In my experience most “abusers” who have lost their job have done so through poor timekeeping or losing their driver’s licence, and not by substance-fuelled unsafe acts. For safety purposes, the best practitioners can do is to police it to the same standards as the road cops do. Swap vehicles for workplace machinery and we have the same challenge: is the person fit to operate?

It would be fine to focus on impairment if there was an easy, cheap, no-argument system to test for it.

Pre-employment testing gives an employer the opportunity to screen out people with an ongoing drug habit. Also by stating this requirement in a job advert, it will put off those people who are well aware that their D&A lifestyle choices would mean they would not pass the test. If employed without any knowledge of their lifestyle habits then it’s too late to drug test after an incident has already occurred, or if there’s reasonable cause. I’m not interested in the person who has a joint on Friday night with some mates. I want to know about the person who has that joint on the way to work on Monday morning because they have an addiction issue and will turn up on my site impaired.

It’s a good deterrent. If a person is a social user of marijuana they will need to abstain for 3-4 weeks to pass the test, which for any social user should be easy. If you have someone who is addicted then they will be the heavier user – addictions are a risk and expense to a business.

Because in the meat industry, when we employ someone the first thing we do after inducting them is issue them with three sharp knives. We must take all practicable steps to ensure that workers go home safe so they can be wasted all weekend. Yeah right.

It’s about behaviours not impairment. When you look at risk, is a person who has the tendency to use drugs a greater risk than a person without this tendency?

Pre-employment clearly sends a message to prospective employees that you take safety seriously and you set high standards. Also, that your business is higher risk and that you do not condone use of D&A while at work. If you want to work for us then show you can refrain from use of any drugs leading up to your pre-employment test. If not, then you might have a bigger problem and should seek help.


comments powered by Disqus

From Safeguard Magazine

Table of Contents