Drug Testing in the Workplace

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On current trends within two years it will be almost impossible for recreational drug users to get a job with larger companies. Drug testing at work is probably the single most effective weapon we have against adult substance abuse. It is a proven, low cost strategy which identifies those needing help, reduces demand, cuts accidents and sick leave, improves attendance and increases productivity. (Half page feature by Dr Patrick Dixon, Director Global Change Ltd, originally published in the Times 5/11/98 but even more sharply relevant today).

Yet drug testing is (or rather was) highly controversial: it penalises users with positive drug tests that can bear little or no relation to work performance, encourages knee-jerk dismissal and discrimination at interview. It costs money, invades privacy and smacks of authoritarianism.

Despite all this, almost overnight it has become fashionable to talk of testing millions of people at work for both alcohol and drugs. Just over six months ago the idea seemed so extreme that the government cut it out of the White Paper altogether - with small concessions for prisons and roadside.

In a dramatic policy shift, drugs czar Keith Halliwell and government Ministers have started encouraging drug testing by employers. They are following a quiet revolution, largely unreported because firms have been scared of drug tests by bad publicity.

The government's own Forensic Science Agency alone carried out over a million workplace drug tests last year, with a rush of interest from transport, construction, manufacturing and financial services industries. Last month the International Petroleum Exchange joined London Transport and many others in random drug testing.

This stampede to test follows spectacular drug testing success in America when many had declared the mega-war against drugs all but lost. The drugs industry accounts for 8% of all international trade according to the UN. Education, customs, police, crop destruction and prison sentences have failed to deliver so drug testing has become highly attractive, even at the cost of civil liberties.

80% of all large companies already spend over £200m a year testing for drugs at work, affecting 40% of the US work force. By 2005 up to 80% of all workers will be covered by drug tests.

But Britain also has a significant and growing problem with addiction. 8% of men and 2% of women in Britain abuse drugs or alcohol, costing at least £3bn a year in accidents and absence alone.

Every office, factory, train operator, airline, construction company and hospital is affected with serious risks to public health and profitability. Workplace drug testing in America is being forced on employers for economic and safety reasons. Drug companies that don't test will go bust. Their insurance premiums will go through the roof.

US studies show that substance abusers (including alcohol) are 33% less productive, three times as likely to be late, four times as likely to hurt others at work or themselves, five times as likely to sue for compensation, and ten times as likely to miss work.

When the State of Ohio introduced random drug testing they found absenteeism dropped 91%, there were 88% less problems with supervisors and 97% decrease in on-the-job injuries. These results are so striking that many companies are now screening job applicants.

One plastics company realised many workers were taking amphetamines to keep awake after they lengthened shifts to twelve hours. Staff found tell-tale powder residues and scratch marks on equipment. They estimated
that 20% of the workforce were taking drugs. After random drug testing was introduced drug-taking fell to negligible levels.

A Wisconsin cardboard factory was contacted recently by their insurers who were worried about high levels of injuries. Random drug testing was introduced and accidents fell 72% the following year, with an 80% decrease in days lost as a result.

Health and safety will be the driving force at first in the UK. Take doctors: a recent report in the Lancet revealed that 37% of male junior doctors were using cannabis and 14% cocaine, amphetamines, barbiturates, LSD, ecstasy, magic mushrooms or other substances. The figure for women was 12%. But that's just the ones willing to admit it.

The BMA's own figures suggest up to 10% of all doctors may abuse either alcohol or illegal drugs, including cocaine, crack and heroin. That's almost 10,000 doctors, treating perhaps 200,000 patients every day. Do you want to be operated on by a surgeon who is suffering from withdrawal? In an operating theatre with two anaesthetists, a consultant and two junior doctors there is a 50% risk that one of the team is a substance abuser.

I am appalled at the irresponsability of the BMA, who have long been opposed to random testing of doctors. They say we are sensible enough to come forward for help, and those that don't are informed upon. Both these claims are complete fiction, judging by the vast gap between numbers with dependency and the few who have been identified. The BMA's resistance to random testing of doctors is scandalous and no doubt will be over-ruled soon.

We will never know how many have died under the knife of an intoxicated surgeon or as a result of a physician's drug-clouded mind. Doctors don't like admitting errors, even in court long after the event, by which time evidence of substance abuse has vanished.

If you're too drunk or doped to drive, or drive a train, you shouldn't be operating - nor working a crane or cement mixer for that matter. Nor should you be defending someone in court nor making huge financial decisions on which other people's future will depend.

Testing is cheap. Breathalysers cost £40 with virtually no running costs while £30 urine tests for drugs only have to be carried out on a few to be effective. For example, London Transport tests just 5% of drivers a year.

That means each worker is checked on average once every twenty years. Hardly a mass invasion of privacy, yet more than enough to be a powerful deterrent. In America positive test rates have fallen from 13.6% to 4.9% in a decade. This is a method that works.

However, random testing is barbaric unless introduced sensitively as part of a comprehensive package of education and access to confidential treatment. The primary aim should not be to sack, but to discourage abuse, offer help, to treat. The most effective programmes are those where the workforce approves a humane, compassionate and fair anti-drugs policy. However those who place others lives at serious risk must expect to face the consequences.

There are many unresolved problems with testing: for example cannabis tests are almost useless with positive tests weeks after use. What blood levels are acceptable for illegal drugs? Who should be tested? How often and what action should be taken?

Some argue for tests only where performance is poor. But by then a fellow worker may have lost an arm, a leg, an eye or a hand - a patient her own life. The aim of testing is to prevent mistakes, not to allocate blame after the event.

One thing is clear: drug and alcohol testing will continue to spread fast regardless of government support, as the most practical and cost effective way to strengthen existing drugs and alcohol policies at work. It will be introduced well or very badly. Either we take hold of the issue now or the issue will take hold of us.

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March 11, 2013 - 22:45

I believe drug testing is a pointless exercise. So you can't be high when you apply, but afterwards you're free to boot heroin. And what's wrong with a recreational user? It's fine if you're a recreational drinker? And these tests only profile for marijuana, as most other drugs take 2-3 days to clear your system. I work in Biotech (i.e. I make cancer drugs) and never once was a drug test mentioned. And it's that way across most bioscience jobs. It's profiling and all it does is eliminate good candidate who occasionally smoke weed. And weed is pretty much legal in most places, it's used to help with a lot of maladies without the danger of addiction. My mother died of complications from alcohol abuse. Her doctors and sponsors put her on a whole galaxy of drugs to 'help' her, and it made her worse. The only time I've seen her normal before she died was when she visited me and smoked. But demonize it all you want, but be prepared to be the hypocrite if you hire a drinker.

dot drug testing consortium
February 04, 2013 - 06:29

I’ve got to say it’s rather a novelty to arrive at a relatively unique blog like this, great effort. I expect I’ll be coming back again soon.

Reply to dot drug testing consortium
Patrick Dixon
February 11, 2013 - 12:24

Great - glad you have found the interesting - are you just looking for information on drug testing - or browsing more widely?

January 14, 2012 - 21:28

Just brilliant - with the amount of people around opposing the use of drug testing in the workplace it is great to see such a well structured supporting response!

Reply to Tweeter
Patrick Dixon
February 11, 2013 - 12:25

Well drug testing can be a matter of life and death in some occupations.

November 02, 2011 - 03:48
Is it yours too

Very nice site!

Reply to alexc818
Patrick Dixon
February 11, 2013 - 12:25


January 15, 2011 - 18:04
Drug Free Workplace

Wow, great article, I have heard of drugrehabs where the counselors that work there still drink and drug legally, I guess it has something to do with descrimination, though with untreated addiction it is only a matter of time before it is gets in the way.

November 27, 2010 - 17:30


November 15, 2010 - 21:14

Wow this article is stupid. I am from America and I can tell you first hand that the number of positive tests is declining because PEOPLE ARE BEATING THE TESTS! I refuse to work for anyone that waves a piss cup at me and I have never done drugs in my life. It's principle. I also find it hard to believe that drug testing is a widespread in America as people claim considering I've only been asked (and refused) once and that was for Wal*Mart. A lot of companies have a drug testing policy in writing only because it lowers their insurance, but they never actually test anyone.

October 25, 2010 - 18:33

Of course the positive test rates have gone down since the random testing began. Since testing has begun, lots of companies have sprung up making products that beat these tests(urineluck, etc), and they work! If someone is getting doped up at work that is one thing, but if my doctor wants to light a fatty up on his time off, then let em be!

Reply to Jim
September 12, 2012 - 14:01
Re: drugs

I agree It should only Be prohibited in the work place not on your own time what you do is you, Finally sonmewon see's that

Maria Clovechy
October 03, 2010 - 18:42

Who was this written by? When was it written? These are details some students need if they are going to use this article for an assignment they need.

Reply to Maria Clovechy
January 26, 2011 - 09:31

I agree. I am currently working on a piece in my senior english class on drug testing in the workplace and this article is amazing no question about it. However, details you named are the details I need. =/

September 25, 2010 - 09:24
Also, you seem to have limited grasp of statistics.

If 10% of doctors use drugs, and you have a team of 5 working on you, that would be a 41% chance that one of them is on drugs. Not 50 - if you had 10 doctors working on you there wouldn't be a 100% chance that one of them was on drugs.
"Lol, medic-ed."

June 30, 2010 - 03:04
@ alan

You are absolutely correct. Upon re-reading this article, it becomes apparant that this person is either ignorant or a mouthpiece for the drug testing companies and/or the American fascists. I have only seen these numbers from "studies" conducted by testing companies or affiliated to testing companies. The only studies I have seen that are not so biased tend to disprove everything he says here. Call me nuts, but I tend to not believe studies conducted by/affiliated with/paid for by Marlboro that "prove" how harmless cigarettes are.

Either that, or he's the usual ignoramus who thinks that authoritarian violations of human rights is the best way to make people "safe"--and will believe any BS he is given to maintain that delusion. We've been down that road a lot, if you read history, and it has never worked.

And you are correct that he is speculating and that speculation is not a reason to dissolve the basic rights of individuals. The fact is that there are many other factors that result in workers fudging their jobs in potentially dangerous ways (alcoholism and fatigue, for instance) that have nothing to do with drugs and are never tested for.

Far better and far less of an intrusion or violation would be to have a worker, prior to engaging in a potentially dangerous job, go through some kind of motor-skills test designed to detect such disorientation (there is a particular word for this, but it eludes me at the moment). That would screen people out for fatigue and alcohol and nearly any other potenially dangerous coordination problem including drugs.

Unfortunately, that would take time, effort, and a willingness of the employers and the people to care about the rights so many have died to obtain for us. And it would undermine the actual purpose of drug testing (to get people used to the idea that they are merely possessions, livestock devoid of any kind of autonomy, including bodily autonomy.) And you know they wont' allow that anytime soon.

In fact, given the history of the pro-testing side to silence it's critics, I seriously doubt my comments will even make it to this page. But I will continue to fight.

June 30, 2010 - 02:43
BS yet again--don't people ever learn?

1. Drug testing is not a deterrent at all. That is a fairly obvious reality to anyone with eyes and ears.

2. Drug testing is alarmingly inaccurate (unless you talk to the testing companies who profit). It targets not the intoxication-producing drug molecules themselves but little questionably potential by-products that are commonly caused by various over-the-counter medications and often produced naturally by some people. The relevant molecule proved to be difficult to nail down during develoment of testing, so they decided to go for a technically less reliable (for diagnosis) but easier to find molecule because they wanted to get this crap out and turn their buck fast.

3. Drug testing does not boost public safety in any way, and far more prevalent causes of intoxication tend to be ignored. (unless you talk to the profiteering testing companies, again). Given the fact that marijuana metabolytes are the ones that tend to be traced the longest, while the harder drugs have an extremely narrow window of potential traceability (you can take them that morning and pass a test---you can also take a test a few days later and pass it), the focus tends to be not on the potentially dangerous drugs but on harmless marijuana (yes, I said harmless--booze is far more addictive and damaging, yet it's legal).

4. Drug testing lowers employee morale because it is a sign of employer contempt towards workers. (again, unless you talk to the profiteering testers). It's hard to have any respect for an employer who treats you as if you need to prove your innocence a priori (even someone accused of murder is innocent until proven guilty, and there has to be a fair amount of good reason to suspect him before you can go ahead with anything). And it's hard to give good work value to an employer who obviously holds you in such contempt.

5. Drug testing is absolutely an invasion of privacy regardless of whether it happens every day or every twenty years, and there is no amount of purported public safety that warrants the dissolving of civil liberties. Ever. Either find another way to protect people, or grow up and accept that no one can ever guarantee your saftey--and if they say they can, they are selling something. Would you allow someone to send a team into your personal home to search your belongings for things they don't like before being allowed employment? If not, then why would you allow someone to invade your body? If you can't see this, then I seriously doubt your intelligence, your integrity, and your own self-respect.

In short, drug testing is both state and corporate bullying. The actual reasons for drug testing is to use the motivation of the grubby crust of bread on our plate every day to get people to sign away their basic civil liberties to those in control--and once you sign away those rights, you may never see them again. At least, not without a nasty and potentially bloody fight.

But at least you'll have your grubby crust of bread and your illusion of safety--not to mention the self-important delusion that you are doing your duty to fight "teh bad guys". Though celebrating the Fourth of July might be a little hypocritical.

BTW, I am "clean", having only had the occasional single glass of wine from time to time, I take perception-altering materials very seriously and responsibly (including alcohol), and I would not date a heavy stoner for the same reason I would not date an alcoholic, but I will never submit to such a blatant violation of my human rights nonetheless.

Unfortunately, this discussion has become such a witch hunt/communist red scare situation that to simply oppose the rights violations involved in our Splendid Little Drug War is to be labeled an addict.

You'd think that would be a dead giveaway, that when you need to seal your views off from criticism by labeling anyone who questions your actions or motives as a "witch", "communist", "addict", "insert boogey-man-of-the-day here", then there may be some significant problems with your views.

Oh well. People are stupid, cowardly, easily-brainwashed children. What else is new?

May 27, 2010 - 23:51
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August 22, 2008 - 21:56

this is absolute garbage,,, scare mongering, and stinks of the "nanny state"
i had to laugh when i read "One plastics company realised many workers were taking amphetamines to keep awake after they lengthened shifts to twelve hours"

this workplace was the cause of the drug taking in the 1st place
it was bad management that caused the workers to be exhausted and feel they needed a substance to get them through their excessivly long day.

"We will never know how many have died under the knife of an intoxicated surgeon or as a result of a physician's drug-clouded mind. "
this is complete speculation.... it may have happened.... it may not, as you say you don't know...... tell people facts not guesses and maybes

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