High anxiety - Random drug testing in Aussie workplaces

By Lunar Loops · Aug 31, 2006 ·
  1. Lunar Loops
    This from http://bulletin.ninemsn.com.au/ :

    High anxiety

    Random drug testers are coming to an office near you, armed with mouth swabs and urine bottles. Will you pass the test? Patrick Carlyon reports.

    One of Australia’s richest men, Lindsay Fox, commutes in a helicopter and relaxes at his beachside mansion. But the privileges of wealth do not excuse him from the need to provide saliva on demand. Fox has been asked – and has acquiesced – several times to having an absorbent pad placed on his tongue for a few seconds. All Fox’s company workers are compelled to agree to tests, according to drug-testing company, Integrity Sampling. Even the new chief executive of Linfox Logistics, Michael Byrne, had to provide a swab within days of being appointed.
    Such monitoring reflects a shift towards an American style of workplace safety, in which employees must agree to offer a mouth swab or pee into a bottle when told to. More and more Australian office workers now face random drug tests, despite conflicting evidence over the veracity of such regimens. The technology has been around for more than two decades, yet the debate over its scientific precision, and suspicion over the motives for such surveillance, still swirl.
    Drug tests appear to be an increasingly accepted element of society. While Tour de France winner Floyd Landis battles to clear his name after a urine sample detected extraordinary amounts of testosterone, the AFL last week awaited a court decision on suppressing the names of three stars who twice tested positive to illicit drugs. Last week, a South Australian politician pushed to have students drug tested twice a year. Recently released research by the National Centre for Education and Training on Addiction at Flinders University found that 17% of employees have used illegal drugs in the past 12 months, prompting newspaper headlines warning of endangered lives. Using the research, a Sydney newspaper calculated that 250,000 Australians take illicit drugs at work. Cannabis was the most commonly abused drug, followed by amphetamines, ecstasy, painkillers and cocaine. Those most likely to use illicit drugs at work were aged 18-29.
    Privacy issues have largely stymied the expansion of Australian drug-testing initiatives. But perhaps such concerns are now being subsumed in the push for greater health and safety measures. It’s not just truck drivers or heavy machinery operators being tested: in the interests of consistency, their office colleagues are being subjected to random tests as well. Integrity Sampling has quadrupled its business in the past 12 months. Another national tester, d:tec, has doubled its business in the same period.

    Despite a false positive debacle late 2004, Victoria’s police have extended a drug-test driver program. The police tout alarming figures to justify this: one in 46 drivers tested positive to illicit drugs in the pilot program, compared with about one in 250 for alcohol in general. And at least three NSW local councils are considering testing for every employee, from the chief executive to the part-time cleaner. “Once one council starts it, I’m quite confident it will be a domino effect,” says Integrity Sampling’s Ian Jameson.
    Resources company Santos plans to introduce random tests for its 1500 workers before the end of the year, preceding similar plans by power company Origin. Santos’ environment health safety manager, Andrew Antony, emphasises a cooperative approach between the company and unions over 18 months. He hopes that initial tests will come back zero per cent positive (the average, according to d:tec, is 10%, while on average 1%-2% of workers resign when random tests are introduced). Anyone caught out would not be sacked, but channelled into rehabilitation programs. The company has chosen urine tests – workers can go into a cubicle by themselves – but Antony hopes advances in saliva technology will soon reduce test intrusiveness. This choice reflects the continuing debate over the science. Drug tests can show exposure to illicit drugs, but measures of impairment are more ticklish. Saliva testers say their technology is better – with marijuana, for example, it will test positive for use within the past six hours or so, not for traces that can linger in the urine stream for weeks.
    Urine testers cite cases of false positives with saliva tests, most notoriously with Ballarat van driver John de Jong, who was wrongly labelled as the first drugged driver to be caught in the world. The police announced changes to its testing procedures soon after the de Jong outcry. De Jong is continuing with defamation claims against the police. “Still to this day, they haven’t offered an apology to him,” says Slater and Gordon lawyer Katalin Blond.

    On the strength of aviation authority recommendations, Qantas is said to be keen to reintroduce a random testing program for all employees which worker resistance helped quash three years ago. The Australian Services Union, which fought the 2003 plans, has deep concerns about privacy issues. “It’s a tool to manipulate and suppress people – most of the time to create fear and to assert who is the boss,” says assistant national secretary Linda White. “Is that the sort of workplace that people want to work in? ... Somebody working in accounting is not going to bring down a plane.”
    Paul Dillon, from the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre, wonders at the expense and ramifications of expanded random drug test programs. In the United States, many employees have opted for lengthy legal redress to what they claim as false positives. And the expense of such tests, roughly about $2 a week per employee tested once a year, will be billed to the consumer. “The vast majority of Australians do not use illicit drugs,” he says. “And it’s a very small proportion who do use illicit drugs who use anything apart from cannabis.”
    Random drug tests could have stemmed the heroin addiction of a 22-year-old Odyssey House client, who spoke to The Bulletin about maintaining his habit until his colleagues noticed him passed out at his desk. He feels that the drug-testing program he was put on helped with his recovery. Yet his was a clear-cut case. The Flinders University research found that 2.5% of survey respondents had worked under the influence of illicit drugs, most commonly in the hospitality, construction and transport industries. Alcohol, the research concluded, posed more of a risk to productivity and safety than illicit drugs. Report author Dr Ken Pidd is not convinced that testing will reduce drug use. Testing can gnaw at staff morale. And despite its routine nature in the US, that country still has a drug problem. Dillon expects the use of random testing to keep rising in a wave of “hysteria”. “Drug testing companies are really pushing their products now, and we’re in a situation where people are more accepting of it,” he says. “There is this perception that it is an incredible problem in the community, but the reality is that most people don’t use illicit drugs.”

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