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Information of interest to our Clients and for the industry

Urine testing: how it works and what it can achieve in the workplace

Drug testing in the workplace is a common practice, particularly within high-risk industries who are at a greater risk of accidents and injury occurring. It’s important to note however, the purpose of workplace drug testing according to Australian law is not about ‘catching’ employees who use drugs, but rather to reduce the negative impacts – physical, financial, emotional or otherwise – of drugs and alcohol in the workplace.

‘Drug and alcohol users lodge 5x more workers compensation claims than other employees’

In Australia both urine and oral fluid testing are acceptable means to test for drugs, however which one is right for an individual workplace depends on a range of factors, which includes industry specific legislation. Contact Work Options to determine which testing method is best for your business.

In this case we look at urine testing and what it can achieve in reducing the risk of workplace drug use and its impacts.

What is a urine drug test and how does it work?
A urine drug test analyses urine for the presence of certain illegal drugs and prescription medications, and is a common and accepted means of testing in Australian workplaces. Cut off levels for each drug class, for both initial and confirmatory testing, are set by Australian legislation (ASNZS 4308). Samples that contain drugs above the cut off concentrations are deemed positive.

Drugs detected through urine:
Urine testing screens for the following drug groups. But how long after a drug is used will it still be detected through a urine drug screen? This can vary depending on a multitude of factors including route of administration / strength of drug / individual metabolism. So there is no exact answer. However the following timeframes can be used as a guideline.

What should be considered when urine testing:

  • Whilst measures are taken to ensure privacy, typically urine testing is considered more invasive than oral fluid testing, due to the nature of collection. A bathroom or private room is required to make the collection, which can be viewed as an invasion of privacy by Fair Work Australia, and workers themselves, and may also be considered logistically difficult for some when conducted on work sites.
  • Where a drug class has been detected through initial testing at site, further testing is required by a NATA accredited laboratory.
  • Samples with concentrations of drug above the cut off level (positive drug screens) do not correlate with impairment. But certainly represents that there is a risk an individual may be impaired, and thus must be managed appropriately to ensure safety.
  • If a certified collector, in accordance with ASNZS 4308, conducts testing correctly the risk of adulteration is minimised.
  • Positive drug tests can provide insight into lifestyle choices of individual workers, which may have negative social affects.

‘62% of harmful drug and alcohol users are employed fulltime’

Regardless of using urine or oral fluid testing methods, drug and alcohol testing can play a key role in protecting businesses from issues with Fair Work Australia, IR, unfair dismissal claims and the physical and financial burden of accidents and injury. However, no matter which testing method is used, the key to successful implementation for any business is:

  • A robust Drug and Alcohol Management System which focuses on education, training and support to prevent misuse in the workplace
  • A system which is developed in consultation with the workforce and complies with industry specific and other relevant WHS legislation
  • Should be applied, reinforced and implemented consistently
  • Sets a clear guide, including policies and procedures, with regards to codes of behaviour
  • Testing should be conducted by certified collectors in strict accordance with relevant standards

To find out more about drug and alcohol testing, or to determine if your business is at risk of drugs and alcohol misuse, contact Work Options.

Related reading:
How employers can avoid 5 big mistakes when drug or alcohol testing
You suspect a worker is under the influence of drugs or alcohol, what’s next?
What to do when an employee fails a drug test
The biggest pitfalls in drug and alcohol testing policies

What To Do When an Employee Fails a Drug Test

For many Australian businesses, particularly within the civil, construction and mining industries, random drug and alcohol testing is common and an accepted part of life at work. But what happens when an employee fails a drug test? It may seem like a fair and reasonable response to terminate an employee when they have intentionally put themselves and others at risk, but it’s rarely best practice; in fact it could land your business in hot water and result in a substantial legal risk.

So even though decreased productivity and absenteeism related to drug and alcohol use costs Australian businesses $5.2billion annually, employers must follow correct procedures when an employee’s screen receives a positive result. Here’s what to do:

1. Don’t make assumptions!

It might be easier said than done, but now is not the time to judge. Firstly, the result could be attributed to an over the counter or prescribed medication. And unless you know all the personal details of your employee’s life, you don’t know what they’re going through; if they are using drugs or alcohol, it could be as a tool to deal with a significant issue or personal problem.

2. Make sure the employee is safe at work

Employers have a duty of care to ensure that employees are safe, and not putting themselves or other people at risk. It is your responsibility to ensure that your worker complies to WHS practices if they have received a positive drug screen. This means ensuring they are not operating machinery, driving or doing any other work that requires a negative drug or alcohol result, in order to be completed safely. They should be stood down and not allowed back to work until they pass a drug screen. CAUTION: check whether they are entitled to be paid whilst stood down.

3. Notify the relevant people
Depending on your organisational structure, there will be a number of people who will need to be notified. This may include HR, the employee’s supervisor and the person in charge of workplace safety. It may also affect co-workers if the employee’s role needs to be changed temporarily. CAUTION: you need to afford the employee privacy so tread with caution and only provide necessary details to only those with a genuine need to know.

4. Do NOT terminate the employee

For many employers, disciplinary action or immediate termination may be the initial reaction to a positive drug screen. It’s important however to understand that there is a process involved, legally speaking, and that the employee is entitled to a fair process. Acting irrationally can often lead straight to an unfair dismissal or other claim against the business.

Take for example the case of Harbour City Ferries versus Toms; in 2013 Toms was asked to fill in for a colleague who had called in sick and crashed a ferry into a wharf. It was later discovered after a positive drug test, that Toms had smoked marijuana the night before. Because Harbour City Ferries had a zero-tolerance policy to drugs and alcohol, Toms employment was terminated. Due to the fact that he was not actually scheduled to work on the day of the incident, and various other mitigating factors, the Fair Work Commission agreed his dismissal was unfair and he was reinstated. However Harbour City Ferries then appealed the decision, focusing on the importance and legitimacy of the policy, and it was overturned.

So why bring it up? Because it presents a valuable lesson for employers… drug and alcohol policies and procedures should be tailored to the individual business and specific industry, taking health and safety obligations into consideration. And they must be enforceable and properly communicated to employees to ensure valuable time and money is not wasted!

5. Check the company’s Drug and Alcohol Policy, and follow it!

For the safety of workers and the business as a whole, a comprehensive Drug and Alcohol Policy must be in place, and a ‘zero-tolerance’ policy is not enough. It should be clear, detailed, consistent in its application and enforceable, and workers must be well educated on the policy, procedures and consequences. Read about the most Common Pitfalls of a Drug and Alcohol Policy to avoid being caught out.

6. Get help from the appropriate people

Once you realise that a worker has been using drugs or alcohol, it’s important to seek out the experts to understand what the employee is going through and why. This means consulting the person or business running your workforce health, or getting someone on board if you don’t have one. They will be able to provide advice, information, and support and, navigate you through any legislation.

7. Support the employee as best as possible
Once again, take the time to understand why the employee may have been under the influence of drugs or alcohol, and offer them as much support to get help as possible. Refer them to an Employee Assistance Program to support their mental wellbeing and provide coping strategies and resources, provide a Drug and Alcohol Management Plan and offer them phone numbers of helplines and online resources which may assist.

With 275 million people worldwide, aged between 15 and 64, using drugs at least once during 2016, and 62% of alcohol and drug users employed fulltime, it’s easy to jump to conclusions and act irrationally when an employee fails a drug test. But for the sake of the employee’s wellbeing, and the potential legal ramifications for your business, best practice is always to follow the correct procedures. Having the right policy in place, and following the correct procedures, will give you the level of protection you need.