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May 26, 2009

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Employers using drugs tests to avoid redundancy pay-outs

The number of employees concerned about, and being subjected to, drug testing at work has shot up since the recession took hold, prompting a national charity to accuse employers of using the practice to keep the cost of redundancies down.

Release, the national centre of expertise on drugs and drugs law, revealed last week that it received an almost five-fold increase in the number of calls to its drugs helpline in the first quarter of 2009 compared with the same period last year. In total, 145 calls relating to drugs at work were received, most of them from employees who work in companies that had not previously implemented drug testing for staff.

The charity said employers were carrying out “health assessments”, which included drug testing, often following an announcement of voluntary redundancies within the company. An employee who tests positive for drugs can be sacked without any redundancy payment.

Release added that, in contrast to the increased concern from employees, it had also noticed a “significant drop” in the number of calls from employers wanting advice on how best to support staff members who they suspected were having problems with drugs.

Commenting on the findings, executive director of Release, Sebastian Saville, said: “This is a worrying practice that may breach employees’ human rights, and their right to privacy. Employers risk alienating staff by forcing them into intrusive tests, and should instead be supporting any staff member who might be experiencing drug problems, not using it as an excuse to make cheap redundancies.”

Drug testing at work is not required by law, except in some safety-critical work situations. While Release is used to fielding calls from people in these roles, its says enquiries now “tend to be from areas such as the finance sector and general office work, and often from individuals who have been in the same job for many years, with previously exemplary work records”.

HSE guidance on the subject points out that it is covered by the general requirements of the HSWA 1974 and the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999, under which employers must ensure the health, safety and welfare of their staff, and assess any relevant risks. The Executive advises organisations to have in place a policy on drug misuse, which applies to and has been agreed with all staff.

The TUC, which is cautious about the issue, arguing that testing is “not a magic solution to a serious workplace problem”, says a policy should be comprehensive and should ensure workers feel confident to report rather than hide problems.

Testing-service providers agreed that there has been more focus on the subject of late. Draeger Safety UK’s head of marketing, David Fenton, said that while the company has seen a continuing growth in interest in its drugs and alcohol testing equipment, “we believe this is the result of more and more organisations recognising the implications of the recent corporate manslaughter legislation and, as a result, implementing drugs and alcohol misuse policies at their place of work”.

The TTC Group, however, acknowledged that the economic situation could be a factor. Simon Protano, the Group’s head of corporate driver development, commented: “In the current financial climate, many employees are worried about losing their jobs, and turn to drink or drugs as a way to combat stress. We believe testing is necessary in the workplace to protect the other employees and the general public.”

Grendonstar’s Simon Truelove agreed, saying: “When managed and performed professionally, a drugs and alcohol testing programme can have a very positive influence on the organisation as a whole, bringing renewed confidence in an individual’s capabilities, as well as heightened levels of trust.”

However, the issue remains controversial. A 2004 independent inquiry into drug testing at work concluded that there is “no justification for it as a means of policing the private behaviour of employees, or of improving performance and productivity”. Acknowledging that drug testing does have a role to play, particularly where safety is a concern, the inquiry said “investment in management training and systems is likely to have a more positive impact and to be less costly, divisive and invasive”.

See an earlier SHP feature article on drugs and the workplace, The drugs don’t work

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