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September 9, 2015

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Drive drugs out of the workplace

marijuana-505464_640By Dr Philip Kindred

The Government’s recent announcement that it plans to outlaw novel psychoactive substances (NPS), better known as ‘legal highs,’ serves as a reminder that recreational drug taking remains a problem both in society and in the workplace.

While the issue of staff being at work with narcotic substances in their systems is a constant concern for employers – particularly in higher risk sectors – the impending legislation on NPS has highlighted the additional threat from types of drugs that have often flown below the radar in the war against drugs on-the-job.

Part of the problem has been the frequent media use of the term ‘legal high’ which has led some to deduce that these substances are more benign and less risky than mainstream banned drugs such as cannabis or cocaine.

However, although the effects of NPS are often similar to those induced by illegal drugs, the effects can often be much more severe. For example ‘synthetic cannabinoids’ – used as a supposedly legal substitute for cannabis – have been found in some cases to be 97 per cent more toxic than cannabis itself.

Moreover the many unknowns associated with legal highs add to the risks involved. For instance less is known about the physiological effects of NPS, or the impact of particular dosages or indeed how long they linger in people’s bloodstreams.

The 2015 Global Drugs Survey indicates that NPS are more prevalent in the UK than we might imagine with nearly 9 per cent of people reporting they had used such substances in the past twelve months.

In fact both NPS and legal drugs, represent a growing workplace risk according to a study carried out by In the survey of 2,600 workers, 28 per cent admitted going to work at some point with drugs in their system, including so-called ‘legal highs’, cannabis and other illegal narcotics. Moreover, one in 20 factory workers questioned actually admitted using industrial machinery after taking drugs.

The negative impact of substance misuse at work can range from a decline in productivity, morale, and profitability through to the very real possibility of fatal accidents in higher-risk occupations such as driving or machine operating.

So how can businesses protect themselves against a hazard that many managers admit they find harder to detect than alcohol misuse, which is more common and tends to have more obvious symptoms?

Essentially, employers need a three-pronged approach; clear and comprehensive policies, clear communication of those policies and good training for health and safety professionals and line managers in how to identify and deal with substance abuse.

Businesses generally want to achieve a position where drug misuse within the workplace is not tolerated of drugs in the workplace and some will adopt policies which specify pre-employment testing or random on-the-job drug testing as well as ‘for cause’ testing which is undertaken in response to an incident or is based on reasonable suspicion that a staff member has drugs in his or her system.

Whichever level of tolerance is adopted, it is important that this is set out clearly in the policy, along with the sanctions that will be imposed on offenders. Policies should also be clear where the onus lies for ensuring a worker’s system is clear of drugs. So if someone takes drugs at a weekend party, policies should make clear if they must then accept full responsibility should those drugs still be present in their system on Monday morning.

Policies should also steer away from the use of ambiguous language as this could lead to speculative disputes in employment tribunals focusing on issues such as perceived levels of impairment rather than actual test readings.

Opinions may vary about an individual’s ability to carry out his or her work duties safely, with various levels of narcotic substance in their system. It is possible to draft policies in a very specific way that states a clear and strong employer position on the presence of recreational drugs – or acceptable levels of prescribed medication

One potential loophole that we recommend employers watch out for is that relating to legal highs. Written policies should specify that employees should not come to work with any psychoactive substance in their system whether legal or illegal.

It’s worth remembering that even after the proposed new law on NPS takes effect, it will more than likely only ban the production and supply of these substances while leaving it technically legal to possess or use them. Despite this employers are within their rights to ban these drugs from the workplace as long as this is made clear to staff.

Once policies have been agreed it’s equally important the rules are communicated effectively to employees and backed up with written and verbal reminders – so there are no grounds for claiming unfair dismissal, should someone later test positive for drugs.

Line managers should also be trained in how best to recognise the effects of NPS. While most of us can easily identify the effects of alcohol consumption – glazed eyes, slurred speech, and even a distinctive smell – figures from the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) show that many managers are not so confident in recognising the effects of drug use. Only one third of employers provided training for managers in how to tackle this issue.

This was consistent with our own Synergy research last year in which the vast majority of managers questioned reported having a ‘no tolerance’ approach to drug misuse yet around 36% admitted they wouldn’t be able to tell whether or not an individual was under the influence.

Anyone responsible for enforcing a drugs and alcohol policy should be sufficiently trained to spot the tell-tale physical or behavioural signs showing the different effects of different substances and have a clear procedure for handling the situation – including knowing when and how to order a test, and how to deal with the results.

A no tolerance approach to drug misuse within the workplace– even one enforced through random testing – shouldn’t be seen as draconian because, after all, the safety of colleagues, customers and others is as much at stake as the safety of the individual concerned or indeed the reputation of the company.

Dr Philip Kindred, BSc PhD MRSC, is Technical Services Manager at Synergy Health and a member of the UK and European Workplace Drug Testing Society. Dr Kindred is an established expert in employee drug and alcohol policy and processes. Synergy Health delivers a range of specialist outsourced services to healthcare providers and other clients concerned with health management.

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