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The biggest pitfalls in workplace drug and alcohol testing policies

The statistics on drugs and alcohol use in Australian workplaces are alarming – a staggering 25% of work accidents involve drugs or alcohol! It’s an important issue that needs to be managed, not only for the immediate health and safety of employees, but also to protect employers.

Take the Cannon versus Poultry Harvesting case study for example; an employee, who showed up drunk to her job at a chicken farm, fell asleep and approximately 50 chickens were killed as a result. Noticing her breath smelled of alcohol, she was reminded of the organisation’s ‘zero-tolerance’ policy and terminated immediately. The worker claimed ‘Unfair Dismissal’, to which the Fair Work Commission agreed, and was awarded nearly $7,000 in compensation.

How does that make you feel? Shocked?  Unfortunately, the reality is that the employer’s Drug and Alcohol Policy didn’t measure up to standards and was not consistently applied.

So how do we make sure this doesn’t happen to us? How can we protect our employees and ourselves in these situations?

The reality is that many employers want to keep people safe at work, prevent dangerous and costly workplace accidents and maintain a good brand reputation. But, despite these intentions, many will fail because their policies and procedures aren’t thorough, or their execution isn’t adequate.  Or even worse, their employees aren’t educated or aware of the policy.

So what are the most common pitfalls in drug and alcohol policies and procedures?

1. The half-baked approach

This is where a simple 1 – 2 paragraph policy exists, simply stating the attitude of the business towards the issue. Typically it states how the organisation ‘will not tolerate drugs or alcohol in the workplace’ or ‘has a zero tolerance approach to drugs and alcohol use’. That’s all there is, and it’s certainly not enough. The policy needs a detailed procedure to back it up, and a series of steps to be followed to reinforce the policy.

2. Unclear procedures

Ensure the procedure is thorough by detailing the who, what, where, when and how of the organisation’s drug and alcohol management program. It should state who is tested (e.g. employees, contractors), what drugs are being tested for (e.g. which drug classes), where (e.g. on-site, off-site), when (e.g. random, post-incident, for-cause) and how (e.g. urine vs saliva) and by whom. It should also detail what support is available to workers and disciplinary procedures.

3. The ‘catch and sack’ approach

This is where procedures are considered harsh, unjust or unfair such as immediate termination following one breach of the policy. The risk here is employers open themselves up to unfair dismissal claims. When considering unfair dismissal claims the FWC will look at the employer’s policy and procedures, whether it was followed and applied correctly, what process they went through to make their decision, any training and support offered to the worker and whether the decision was fair, just or harsh (amongst other things).

4. Inconsistency in the application of the procedure

Inconsistency in the procedure application and fairness are common problems in enforcing policies and procedures. Often an employer may miss a step, intentionally or otherwise, or manipulate the procedure to get the desired outcome; for example, deliberately targeting a person in a random test… which of course, is not random! Other times they may terminate a worker without following the procedural steps… again, not the correct procedure!

5. Lack of training

This one is really simple, but so often not done. Employers need to ensure that all workers are trained on the drug and alcohol policy and procedures – at induction and ongoing, and sign training attendance sheets. Employees should be educated on the dangers of alcohol and drugs in the workplace in all standard training, and made well aware of the organisation’s policies and procedures. Best practice is to include a competency test to show that the employee understood what they were taught.


It is understandable, despite their best intentions, how an organisation can fail to implement positive drug and alcohol policies. But it is a critical one to get right! Not only will having a clear, detailed, fair and enforceable procedure be more successful in eliminating drugs and alcohol in the workplace, but it will save your bottom line in the long run!

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