Drug testing is becoming increasingly common in Australian society, with random tests for drivers now including both alcohol and drug test components. Will we see this trend become a part of our regular experience in the workplace too? Today’s Karen Gately blog examines a landmark decision by Fair Work Australia (FWA), granting Victorian building site employers the power to enforce compulsory drug and alcohol testing on their workers.
Many industry commentators are predicting that this landmark drug test ruling will likely expand to other industries. After all, being ‘under the influence’ whilst at work (apart from the illegal implications of drug taking) is always inappropriate – and not only in the higher-stakes construction field. The decision undertaken by the FWA on this topic is the culmination of a long and hard-fought battle between employer groups and unions – and it is certainly a controversial decision with significant ramifications to come. As reported in HC Online (a news website dedicated to all things HR) “the unanimous decision handed down by the full bench of FWA to enforce drug and alcohol tests was found to be a “reasonable” request from an employer in the building industry.” In a media statement the FWA has said: “The risks to employee safety posed by drug and alcohol use have long been recognized by this tribunal, and compulsory drug and alcohol testing is, of itself, not so extraordinary that it could not be argued to be a reasonable employer instruction.”
There is an obvious need for employers to ensure the safety of their workforce – a drug and alcohol testing program is one way of assisting employers maintain a safe workplace and develop a safety-conscious culture. Testing programs could clearly reduce workplace injuries and fatalities in industries that see employees placed in high-risk situations – drugs and alcohol on building sites can swiftly become a lethal cocktail. But what about workplaces where physical danger is not so easily apparent? Should drug and alcohol tests be enforceable in corporate environments too? The morale arguments made against testing in corporate or less vulnerable environments are more difficult to easily debate. In my view, to respond to the objections and concerns most often raised, drug and alcohol programs should focus on more than merely testing and punishment. It is an important opportunity to help staff who struggle with drugs or alcohol problems to overcome their addictions. Of course every individual has a responsibility to live up to his or her end of the bargain by presenting to work in a fit and proper state. So if support and opportunity is provided but an employee refuses to take personal responsibility for their inappropriate substance use, disciplinary action may well be appropriate. Wherever possible, employers should focus their drug and alcohol testing programs on helping to keep people safe.
As I recently learned, if you do choose to use drug and alcohol testing in your workplace, it may also be wise to provide clear instructions to staff not experienced in the process. I was onsite at a client’s office when my colleague Tom and I were asked to participate in mandatory testing taking place that morning. Having never done one of these tests before, I didn’t know what to expect. The next thing I knew a gentleman had placed a gadget in front of my face and asked me to count. So as I proceeded to count to ten in my mind, Tom began to laugh. Once Tom regained a little composure he explained that I was meant to be counting out loud – as it was a breath test and not enough air is expelled if I count in my head!! The tester informed me with a big grin on his face that while I had passed the alcohol test, I had indeed failed his IQ test. I guess the upside of my alcohol and drug test newbie status was that Tom got a hearty laugh out of the experience and no doubt it added something different to my tester’s day.