Drug and alcohol tests: don't break the rules

Drug and alcohol tests: don

By Gaby Grammeno on 31 July 2018

Employers and other people conducting a business or undertaking are obliged to eliminate or otherwise manage work health or safety risks arising from inappropriate use of alcohol or other drugs.

Drug and alcohol testing is one of the strategies that can be used to help manage the risk.

Testing may be appropriate in high risk and safety critical jobs where the impact of drug and alcohol misuse could harm not only the people at the workplace but also the general public.

Occupations in this category include pilots, air traffic controllers, operators of dangerous machinery, transport drivers such as train drivers, military personnel, firefighters and workers handling toxic substances.

Some aviation industry organisations such as airlines and maintenance companies may be required to have a drug and alcohol management plan in place, and the Civil Aviation Safety Authority conducts additional random alcohol and drug testing to audit these programs.

It is important to consider the various options for testing procedures, legal limitations and consequences of the testing.

Managing risk


If drug and alcohol testing is to be used to help manage risk, an employer should maintain a policy outlining:

  • the definition of unacceptable drug and alcohol use
  • when, how and why the tests will be conducted
  • who will conduct tests
  • how the results will determine if someone is fit (or unfit) for duty, and
  • what are the consequences of a positive test – in particular, circumstances under which a positive test could result in dismissal.

Having a written policy is not enough – employers need to ensure that the policy is reasonable, that all employees are aware of and understand the policy and that the policy is consistently applied. Employees on the other hand have a duty to act responsibly in the workplace and to cooperate with an employer’s reasonable policies and procedures.

Limitations and legal challenges


Keep in mind that the reliability of tests can be a poor and inaccurate measurement of impairment and can therefore be subject to legal challenge – drug testing technology is not infallible. If a positive drug test does occur, it may be from cheaper ‘screen tests’ used on site. Independent scientific confirmation is necessary if results are going to stand up in court.

Moreover, tests are generally unable to determine if a drug user is casual, recreational or regular. Cannabis, for example, can be detected in urine for up to a month after a single use. It is difficult to argue in court that a drug found in a test was used recently and was therefore causing impairment. Alcohol is the exception, as a positive blood or breath test can be related to the levels of impairment and intoxication.

Unions have expressed concerns about workplace drug and alcohol testing, including whether the tests will be an accurate and precise measurement of impairment, and how to protect workers from harassment and bullying in relation to test results and processes. They have queried why employers should focus on testing when more people are injured due to inadequate training, poor maintenance and other issues. From time to time, particular disputes have been the focus of industrial action.

Options for testing protocols


The three main types of tests are blood, urine and saliva tests, and the main options for drug and alcohol testing are:

  • random testing (may be required, eg for some construction projects)
  • pre-employment testing
  • ‘for cause’ testing (if there are reasonable suspicions that a worker is under the influence)
  • post-accident/incident testing
  • post positive result resting
  • rehabilitation testing, and
  • voluntary testing.

Whichever one an employer elects, it is essential that it consult adequately during the selection process and follow a rigorous set procedure.

Procedures should include:

  • split samples – the subject of the test must receive a sample which they can have independently tested
  • chain of custody – the time, place and each person who handles samples must be documented and comply with requirements
  • the use of accredited laboratories for testing, and
  • confidentiality.

Tests can be conducted by a professional provider of testing services, or it can be done by in-house personnel. The person performing the testing must have received the appropriate training in the chosen drug testing system. The Fair Work Commission has ruled it is not best practice for an employee’s direct manager, or any other person who is well-known to the employee, to take a urine sample from that employee.

Compliance with standards


Whoever carries out the testing, the procedures must comply with the relevant Australian Standards, that is, AS 3547:1997 Breath alcohol testing devices for personal use, AS 4760-2006: Procedures for specimen collection and the detection and quantitation of drugs in oral fluid, and AS/NZS 4308:2008 Procedures for specimen collection and the detection and quantitation of drugs of abuse in urine, as applicable.

These standards specify requirements for the performance, testing and marking of disposable and re-useable breath alcohol testing devices, procedures for specimen collection, storage, handling, on-site initial testing and the dispatch of human oral fluid to the laboratory, and procedures for specimen collection, screening, confirmation, quantitation and reporting of drugs in human urine as well as integrity testing of the specimen.


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