Drug testing has 'no impact on safety or performance'

Jun 28 2004 by Brian Amble Print This Article

Random testing for drugs has no impact on safety, productivity or performance, a new report argues, and is 'in conflict with liberal-democratic values'.

The long-awaited report from the Independent Inquiry into Drug Testing at Work (IIDTW) is the most comprehensive inquiry ever carried out into drug testing in the UK.

The Inquiry, facilitated by DrugScope and supported by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and the Network of European Foundations, has spent the past 18 months collecting evidence from employers and employees, legal experts, police officers and providers of drug testing services.

It was established following the explosion of testing in the United States, where 15 million people are tested at work each year. It also arose out of concerns about the lack of any independent assessment of the arguments for and against the effectiveness of drug testing, its costs and benefits, or the wider social impact of excluding otherwise law-abiding people from work.

The report warns that workplace testing is likely to increase even though evidence for its impact on performance - and even safety - is inconclusive at best, and it calls for a clampdown on workplace testing and proper regulation of the laboratories providing testing services to employers.

"People are not generally required to organise their lives to maximise their productivity at work, and employers do not have a direct law enforcement function. Empowering employers to investigate private behaviour . . . is in conflict with liberal-democratic values."

"There is no clear evidence that drug testing at work has a significant deterrent effect. Drug testing is not a measure of current intoxication. Someone may test positive after taking a drug days, weeks or months before," it states.

Indeed, it continues, there is a lack of evidence for a strong link between drug use and accidents even in safety-critical industries, such as transport, engineering, quarrying and mining.

Nevertheless, it warns, "we could be on the cusp of an explosion of drug testing in the UK," with workplace drugs testing becoming "a fact of everyday working life."

Other factors such as "bad working conditions, sleeping and health problems, excessive workloads and work-related stress" have a greater impact on safety, productivity and performance, it argues.

The IIDTW acknowledges that employers have a legitimate interest in drug and alcohol use amongst their staff Ė but only in a restricted set of circumstances such as criminal activity, critical safety concerns or where worker's jobs are suffering.

British Airways have recently announced the introduction of drug and alcohol testing for all its 47,000 staff from this August following allegations of drinking sessions by pilots.

Where staff do have drug or alcohol problems, the IIDTW says, this is a health and welfare issue as well as a disciplinary matter and should not be an automatic trigger for dismissal.

Many employers, however, seem to think otherwise.

More three-quarters (78 per cent) of employers interviewed by MORI researchers said they would consider introducing drug testing if they believed that drugs or alcohol were affecting staff productivity

Half said random testing should be introduced across the entire workforce, and not limited to safety-critical workers and the armed forces.

This is despite the fact that almost seven out of ten employers (68 per cent) quizzed by MORI acknowledge that drug testing impact on employees' human rights.

A survey by the Chartered Management Institute in March 2003 also found that over half (55 per cent) of managers supported random testing at work and over a quarter backed instant dismissal for staff with positive results.

But the IIDTW is scathing about such 'big-brother' attitudes:

"People are not generally required to organise their lives to maximise their productivity at work, and employers do not have a direct law enforcement function. Empowering employers to investigate private behaviour actively - in the absence of legitimate safety or performance concerns - is in conflict with liberal-democratic values," the report states.

Moreover, it says, the legal position on drug testing at work is confused. Employers could be open to legal challenge if they invade the privacy of employees unnecessarily, particularly under the Human Rights Act 1998 and the Data Protection Act 1998.

The picture is also distorted by the over-inflated claims of some testing companies: "Some of these companies may be making what appear to be inflated claims about the extent and impact of alcohol and drug problems in the workplace and the effectiveness of their own products."

The answer for most organisations, the report concludes, is better management, not random testing.

"For the majority of businesses, investment in management training and systems is likely to have more impact on safety, performance and productivity than the introduction of drug testing at work. There is a wealth of evidence that good and open management is the most effective method of improving workplace performance and tackling drug and alcohol problems amongst staff."

A copy of the full report is available here.