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The highs and lows of drug testing

By Lunar Loops, Apr 1, 2008 | |
  1. Lunar Loops
    This from The Financial Times (UK):

    The highs and lows of drug testing

    By Salamander Davoudi
    Published: March 31 2008 20:35 | Last updated: March 31 2008 20:35

    After Laing O’Rourke, the construction group, carried out 1,270 random drug tests last year, it promptly sacked 115 employees because traces of cannabis or cocaine were found in their blood.

    Workplace drug testing has become routine in safety-critical industries in developed countries, where lives could be put at risk by drug-impaired employees. In the US the practice has become widespread, where since the 1970s it has become a normal feature of service contracts. Almost 70 per cent of testing in the world takes place in the US.

    But in the past five years it has also captured the interest of other, less safety-critical sectors in the UK and Europe. Employers increasingly believe that performance at work can be affected by what people do in their own time.

    Chris Evans, technical director of Drug Aware, a Derby, UK-based drug testing and consultancy business, says: “There has been a near-revolutionary culture shift in terms of the amount of testing being done and the willingness to look into it. Many companies are now looking at it as a measure to improve productivity and reduce absenteeism as well as other factors including safety, which remains key.”

    Drug testing companies have traditionally served two main markets: medical (drug clinics and rehabilitation centres) and criminal justice (police, prisons and the probation service). But the workplace accounts for an ever larger share of sales.

    According to a survey carried out last year by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, 22 per cent of UK employers test employees for drug and alcohol use, either randomly or when hiring new recruits. A further 9 per cent said they were planning to introduce testing.

    According to the same survey, 31 per cent of employers had dismissed at least one person because of alcohol abuse in the past two years and 15 per cent because of drug problems.

    Fiona Begley, chief executive of Concateno, the UK’s largest drug and alcohol testing company, says the market is being driven by increasing regulation and fear of litigation.

    Corporate manslaughter legislation in the UK has made those who control a company potentially liable for manslaughter if they operate in a way that results in deaths as a consequence of business practices.

    “This has brought drug testing to the attention of the boardroom much more than it has ever been in the past,” Ms Begley says.

    Demand for Concateno’s services is coming from US banks based in the UK (for their customer service and call centres) and from utility companies, she says. In the UK the market is worth about £50m-£70m and globally it is valued at about £1.5bn, according to Ms Begley.

    The use of drug testing may also be boosted by technological advances. Testing equipment can now quickly detect a range of drugs in saliva. A quick swab in the mouth and a handheld machine can pick up traces of cannabis, heroin, cocaine, morphine or amphetamines. The results are given within five minutes.

    But the practice remains controversial in the UK. Critics charge that outside safety-critical areas, employers are using the tests simply to control and monitor staff.

    Martin Barnes, chief executive of DrugScope, the drug awareness charity, says: “We recognise that workplace drug testing is important in safety-critical sectors, but consider that it is not justified simply as a way of policing the private behaviour of the workforce, nor is it an appropriate tool for dealing with performance issues.”

    The annual British Crime Survey for 2006 estimated that 10 per cent of the population have used one or more illicit drug in the previous 12 months.
    But the majority will have used drugs occasionally and only recreationally – probably cannabis, cocaine or ecstasy – and most report experiencing few or no ill effects on their health or performance at work.

    A 2004 report by the Independent Inquiry on Drug Testing at Work found a lack of evidence to link illicit drug use and accidents at work, absenteeism, low productivity or poor performance.

    Financial services companies have largely eschewed drug testing, say industry observers. While many companies test people at the recruiting stage, random drug tests are rare.

    “The financial services industry would be a lucrative source of business but the reality of [the] situation is that they largely do pre-employment testing. How many trading desks would exist if we were to test randomly?” asks one drug testing industry executive.

    “One [Metropolitan] Police officer said to me that there is as much cocaine going through [the] Canary Wharf [financial district] as there is going through the rest of London,” he adds.

    Across the Atlantic, where most workplace drug testing takes place, perceptions and practices differ drastically. Robert Tomaso, partner and employment law specialist at the US law firm Husch Blackwell Sanders, says there are legal reasons for this. “Employment at will, which is the default law in most jurisdictions, means a company can discharge an employee for good reason, bad reason or no reason at all.”

    That is tempered, however, if there is a union involved. Only about 10 per cent of private sector employees have unions. “Given the general setting of employment at will, it is certainly easier to implement a drug testing policy in the US,” Mr Tomaso says.

    In the UK, however, substance testing remains difficult to implement in spite of employers’ interest. Businesses may have a duty to ensure a safe working environment, but employment tribunals, the judicial bodies established to resolve disputes over employment rights, are required to interpret legislation in the light of the Human Rights Act, which gives individuals the right to a private life and “bodily integrity”.

    So while British employers may want to crack down on staff following a workplace drug test, their hands may be tied: firing an employee following a random screening could be deemed unfair dismissal.

    Zero tolerance approach keeps ferry services afloat

    NorfolkLine Ferries has had a drug and alcohol testing policy in place for more than 10 years. The UK company has 430 onshore employees and 800 people on vessels on rolling rotas. Last year more than 2m passengers travelled on its ferries across the English Channel and the Irish Sea. The company also runs freight services.

    “We have a zero tolerance approach to drugs and alcohol for our vessel-based employees. The shore-based employees are subject to random drug testing but can drink to the legal driving limit,” the company says.
    It randomly tests 15 per cent of staff every year. It also tests individuals if their behaviour is considered suspicious or after any accidents or other incidents. Employees are contractually required to let the company take breath, saliva or urine tests.

    “Sometimes there are people who refuse to take the test. This usually results in disciplinary action and can often lead to dismissal,” the company says. On average, it says, it dismisses fewer than five people a year for failing such tests.

    But there is a policy of self-referral in place which means that employees who worry that they might fail a future test can sign up to therapeutic programmes to help them with drug or alcohol issues at the company’s expense.

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