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What Lance Armstrong has taught employers about workplace drug testing

Kate Russell , 04 Feb 2013

Kate Russell

The sports and wider world have been rocked with shock and sadness that Lance Armstrong, once thought to be the greatest cyclist of his generation, cheated his way to the top. So much has his credibility been undermined that Bradley Wiggins is reported to have expressed strong doubts about Armstrong’s claims that he had not taken performance enhancing drugs in 2009 and 2010.

Wiggins takes the view that Armstrong has lied so much he can no longer believe anything he says.

One of the basic expectations of the workplace is that employees come to work clean, free from the taint of drugs or alcohol and able to safely perform their work safely.

Drug testing in the workplace has become increasingly common in the UK. In some safety-critical sectors, for example, the railways, testing is mandatory. But many employers from other sectors want to test employees even though there may be no specific legal imperative to do so. Under the Health and Safety at Work legislation employers are under a duty to provide a safe working environment.

This includes taking steps to ensure that they do not knowingly allow an employee to work when impaired by alcohol or after misusing illegal drugs. Ignorance of the law is no defence.

Testing of this nature is sensitive and can lead to challenges from employees. Government research suggests that around 5% of the UK's working population actively use drugs. So how do you go about introducing a drug and alcohol testing in an appropriate and compliant way?

Start by introducing a drug and alcohol policy, which sets out your expectations, the organisation's standards and the processes to be used. The emphasis is on support rather than punishment. For example, if an employee comes to you and explains he has an alcohol problem, it is an illness and best addressed sympathetically. This does not condone inappropriate alcohol consumption, but seeks to have problems aired, explored and addressed, rather than hidden.

Ultimately this should mean a safer working environment. Inform and consult staff about the policy and take their feedback. If you have a union make sure they're involved. It's in everyone's interests to have the whole team on board. Educate employees about the effects of drugs and how usage manifests itself.

Tell employees what will happen if they are tested and the test comes back positive. Make sure they clearly understand the health support side too. One of our clients, a large transport company, introduced drug and alcohol testing over 10 years ago. They have a rule that if a driver comes to them in the first instance and on his own initiative, admitting a problem, they will arrange support and counseling.

But if they find out about it via testing, they discipline.

Managers will need additional training, which covers identifying possible problems, what different drugs look like, the testing process and legal responsibilities.

Communicate details of the policy, including the start date, the process and type of tests that will be used, the circumstances under which testing will take place and the consequences of a positive result.

There are two ways of collecting the sample data. The first is known as "self-collect". Here the employer collects samples from employees. If you do this, you must ensure that the individuals who carry out the collection of samples are be properly trained, so that they can correctly follow the procedures.

The second method is for an accredited collection officer from an independent testing company to come to the employer's premises to collect samples. These will be sent to the testing company's laboratory for analysis. Use an accredited company to carry out the testing to ensure that processes are lawfully and rigorously carried out.

Although it's a sensitive matter, there are very good reasons for introducing a policy. Drug testing not only acts as a deterrent, it increases safety and improves attendance, and there is evidence that most employees understand and accept a policy that is well communicated and carried out.

Kate Russell is the managing director of Russell HR Consulting

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