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Drug and Alcohol Testing: The Complete Guide to Workplace Safety

23 January, 2024

Man sleeping after taking pills and drinking alcohol

The abuse of illicit substances poses significant risks to the health and safety of the individual and the community. Drug and alcohol testing is one of the proactive measures organisations take to protect their employees. It not only prevents serious accidents but also helps maintain productivity, employee morale, and company reputation. The tests come in various types and are implemented for various reasons. Its main purpose is to manage safety risks and deter employees from engaging in substance abuse.

Drug and alcohol consumption can negatively affect judgment, perception, reaction time, and coordination. These impairments hinder the ability of the individual to perform tasks safely and efficiently. Thus, it is critical for companies to ensure their employees are physically and mentally fit while doing safety-sensitive functions. This guide aims to provide a comprehensive overview of workplace drug testing, including its importance, different testing methods, standard procedures and their credibility.

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An Overview of Drug and Alcohol Testing in Australia

Drug and alcohol testing in Australia is an important aspect of maintaining safety in the workplace. It is mandated in several workplaces, such as mining, transportation, aviation, construction, and manufacturing. It is because these industries have a high-risk nature due to their operation of heavy machinery and equipment that requires focus and alertness.

Moreover, some businesses may implement drug and alcohol screening as part of their safety initiative. This is done to protect the health and well-being of employees and to mitigate potential risks associated with substance abuse. However, it is essential to have a comprehensive policy that outlines the purpose of testing, testing methods, and consequences of positive results.

There are different types of drug and alcohol tests that can be conducted in the workplace. This includes urine, saliva, blood, and breath testing. Employers can choose the appropriate method based on their specific needs and requirements. Furthermore, it is implemented as part of a pre-employment medical assessment, post-incident investigation, random testing, and reasonable suspicion testing.

A Brief History

  • Alcohol and drug testing in Australian workplaces began in the 1980s as a response to increasing concerns about substance abuse affecting productivity and safety.
  • The first drug and alcohol policies were implemented in industries with high safety risks, such as transportation and mining occupations.
  • In the mid-1990s, the first Australian Standards guidelines were introduced. Workplaces primarily used urine samples, with the introduction of saliva drug screening and breathalysers for alcohol testing later on.
  • In the 2000s, associations were formed arising from the need to be updated with technology in the field of drug and alcohol testing industry.

A construction worker looking at the site

Importance of Drug and Alcohol Testing in the Workplace

Drug and alcohol testing plays a vital role in maintaining a safe and healthy work environment. Firstly, it ensures the safety and well-being of employees. Workers under the influence of drugs or alcohol increase the risk of accidents and injuries. Testing helps to identify individuals who may be impaired to allow employers to take appropriate actions.

Secondly, testing promotes productivity. Substance abuse can lead to low work performance, high absenteeism, and impaired decision-making. This can ultimately affect the overall efficiency and success of a company. By establishing testing programs, employers can deter employees from using illegal drugs and excessive alcohol consumption. It also encourages accountability and a more focused and stable workforce.

Lastly, workplace testing is crucial for legal and liability reasons. Employers have a legal duty to provide a hazard-free environment, and failure to address substance abuse issues can result in legal ramifications. Regular testing helps companies demonstrate their commitment to employee safety and serves as evidence of due diligence in case of accidents or incidents. It can also help protect employers from potential liability claims related to the actions of impaired employees.

Main Purpose

The main purpose of testing in the workplace is to protect the employees and business integrity. It helps employers identify at-risk individuals and address potential issues before they lead to significant consequences. It also serves as a deterrent for employees who may be tempted to use illegal substances in the workplace.

Additionally, it promotes professionalism. Employees who are aware of the testing policies are more likely to adhere to company rules and regulations. Thus, they instil responsible habits to avoid going to work under the influence of alcohol and drugs. Ultimately, it lowers the rate of accidents and costs related to healthcare or substance use.

The results of a drug test with a testing kit on top

Commonly Detected Substances in Workplace Drug and Alcohol Testing

Workplace drug and alcohol testing policies typically include substances that are commonly abused in Australia. The first tested substance is marijuana, also known as cannabis. Marijuana is largely illegal in Australia, and individuals may incur penalties for its possession and use. It is a psychoactive drug that can impair cognitive function, memory, and coordination.

Cocaine is another commonly detected substance. It is a powerful stimulant drug that can increase alertness and energy. However, it comes with a range of negative effects on cognition and behaviour, including aggression and paranoia. Moreover, amphetamines, benzodiazepines (sedatives and tranquillisers) and opioids (heroin and prescription painkillers) are often included in the drug screening.

Drug tests can detect prescription medications that may indicate possible abuse. Individuals may take these legal drugs recreationally or for purposes other than their intended medical use. Lastly, workplaces monitor the use of alcohol. Excessive consumption can impair judgment, coordination, and reaction times, increasing the risk of untoward incidents. Organisations set zero-tolerance policies for these substances to maintain a safe and productive work environment.

Effects of Substance Abuse in the Workplace

Substance abuse can have several detrimental effects on individuals and the overall work environment. Primarily, impaired workers are likely to cause accidents due to decreased physical and mental abilities. It poses risks in jobs that require operating machinery or vehicles, as individuals have slower reaction time and coordination.

Drug and alcohol misuse also leads to a decline in job performance and productivity. This is because employees are likely to be late or miss work. As a result, it can overwhelm coworkers as they try to cover the tasks of absent employees. It can also lead to strained relationships, conflicts, and a negative work culture.

A workplace breathalyser

Drug and Alcohol Testing Method: Workplace Breathalysers

A standard method in drug and alcohol testing is the use of a workplace breathalyser. It is a device that detects the presence of alcohol in the breath. It also measures the legal blood alcohol level, indicating the level of impairment. This method is effective for testing employees who are intoxicated while on duty.

Breathalysers work by capturing the exhaled breath and analysing the sample using sensor technologies. Workplace units use fuel cell sensors to accurately measure the Blood Alcohol Concentration (BAC). This technology specifically traces for ethanol. Thus, if the device shows a positive result, it indicates that an employee has consumed alcohol and may be impaired.

Workplace breathalysers come in various types, including handheld devices and wall-mounted units. Portable breathalysers are suitable for on-the-spot testing, while wall-mounted breathalyses are ideal for screening employees before entering the premises. Nevertheless, it is essential to use a certified device that adheres to Australian Standards (AS3547:2019). This ensures the device is accurate and reliable in detecting alcohol levels.

Benefits of Workplace Breathalysers

  • Breathalysers are convenient and easy to use. To conduct a breath test, the employee will blow into the device and wait for the results.
  • Breath alcohol equipment provides immediate results. It processes the sample and displays the BAC on the device screen within seconds.
  • Workplace breathalysers are non-invasive. The sample collection procedure is simple and does not require any bodily fluids, intrusive methods, or privacy concerns.
  • It is suitable for situations where it requires immediate results, such as random monitoring or reasonable suspicion cases. This allows employers to make informed decisions.
  • It is a cost-effective device as it does not require laboratory testing.

A lab technician checking the colors of the sample against a chart

Drug and Alcohol Testing Method: Urine Test Kits

Urine testing is a standard method in many workplaces. The use of urine test kits is convenient and accessible to businesses. These kits typically consist of a collection cup, a testing strip, and a colour indicator chart. It relies on antibodies to detect drugs or drug metabolites in the urine sample. If a substance is present, the test strip will change colour.

To conduct the urine drug and alcohol testing, the employee provides a sample in the collection container. Individuals should ensure to follow the guidelines of specimen collection and handling to maintain accuracy. Afterwards, they submit the samples to the testing officer for analysis. Employees may wait for five to ten minutes to receive the initial result.

Urine tests can detect drugs or alcohol for up to 48 hours after consumption. This can help identify recent use of recreational drugs or possible substance abuse issues. Moreover, this method is suitable for pre-employment screening, random drug testing, and blanket testing. It is important for companies to use certified urine test kits (AS4308:2008) to ascertain accuracy and reliability.

Benefits of Urine Test Kits

Urine test kits are easy to use and convenient for workplace testing. They can detect a wide variety of substances, including illicit drugs, prescription medicines, and alcohol. Additionally, it has a longer detection window than other test methods. This allows employers or healthcare professionals to identify potential substance abuse disorders.

Furthermore, urine test kits are cost-effective devices. It minimises the need for laboratory processes, which can have high costs. Likewise, their portability makes them accessible to businesses of all sizes. The sample collection procedure is less invasive than a blood test. Lastly, they provide quick results, allowing for immediate decision-making.

A collector conducting an oral fluid test

Drug and Alcohol Testing Method: Saliva Test Kits

Saliva testing is another popular method for detecting drug and alcohol use. Organisations may use saliva test kits as alternatives for urine testing. This method has a straightforward sample collection procedure, which is advantageous for the individual and the testing officer. The test kit includes a collection swab or cassette and a testing device for analysis.

To conduct saliva testing, the administrator rubs the inside of the cheek with the swabstick. Then, they insert the collection stick with the saliva sample into the testing device containing immunoassay agents. Depending on the type of kit, the result may show a colour change or lines to indicate non-negative results.

A saliva test usually detects the common drugs of abuse, such as amphetamines, marijuana, and cocaine. The detection window is shorter than urine tests, ranging from a few hours to a couple of days. This makes it more suitable for determining recent substance use. Moreover, test kits with AS4760:2019 certification ensure they meet the regulatory standards.

Benefits of Saliva Test Kits

Saliva test kits have become increasingly popular due to their numerous advantages. The key benefits of the test include non-invasive sampling, ease of use, and high accuracy. The collection method is simple and convenient for onsite testing. The sample can be collected at any time, eliminating the need for a bathroom facility or intrusive equipment.

In addition, the testing process is done in plain view, minimising the possibility of tampering or adulteration. This enhances the accuracy of the test. It also provides quick results within minutes, allowing for faster decision-making. The test is suitable for random, reasonable suspicion, and post-incident testing.

Three vials of blood on top of a form

Drug and Alcohol Testing Method: Blood Tests

A blood test is one of the most accurate methods of drug and alcohol testing. It involves taking a blood sample from an individual and analysing it to detect the presence of substances in their system. However, it is also considered the most intrusive method due to the use of needles or injections in drawing a sample.

One reason why blood tests are highly accurate is that they detect a wide range of substances that other methods may miss. It can also provide comprehensive results, including the exact quantity of drugs or alcohol in the bloodstream. Furthermore, blood testing has a detection window of 6 to 12 hours. This is suitable in post-incident tests to determine if substance use is a factor in the accident.

Blood testing requires a licensed professional to obtain the sample. Then, it undergoes a laboratory analysis to determine the results. Due to the complex nature of the process, it has a longer turnaround time than other methods, usually within one to two days. Thus, many organisations employ blood tests for confirmation.

Benefits of Blood Tests

  • Blood tests provide high accuracy in detecting and quantifying the presence of drugs in the bloodstream.
  • Blood tests can trace small amounts of drugs and alcohol in the system.
  • They can provide detailed results, allowing for a comprehensive assessment of drug use.
  • The test often serves as a confirmatory testing procedure for preliminary screening with non-negative results.
  • Helps health professionals in diagnosing drug intoxication or overdose cases in emergency situations.
  • Blood tests enable efficient monitoring of medication levels and ensure proper dosing for patients.
  • They can provide evidence in legal cases involving substance use, such as impaired driving or workplace accidents.

A lab technician putting hair strands into a petri dish

Drug and Alcohol Testing Method: Hair Follicle Tests

In some cases, workplaces may utilise hair specimens for drug and alcohol testing. A distinct characteristic of hair follicle testing is its ability to detect substance use for up to 90 days. This method involves collecting small strands of hair, typically from the root of the head. Then, it undergoes laboratory procedures to analyse the presence of drugs or alcohol metabolites in the hair shaft.

Hair follicle testing provides high accuracy and reliability. When a person consumes drugs or alcohol, the metabolites or byproducts enter the hair shaft and remain there as the hair grows. Thus, it can provide long-term historical data on substance use. Moreover, hair samples are stable. External or environmental factors do not easily affect the test.

It is important to note that hair testing may not be as effective in detecting recent drug or alcohol use. This is because metabolism can take time before it is stored in the hair. Individuals also have different rates of hair growth and drug incorporation, which can affect the detection window.

Benefits of Hair Follicle Tests

Hair follicle drug tests offer several benefits and advantages. It is an effective tool for identifying long-term or chronic substance abuse. The long detection time can determine patterns of drug or alcohol use over an extended period. Another benefit is their ability to detect a wide range of drugs that other test methods may not be able to identify.

The results of the test can aid health professionals in the drug use history of a person. It is beneficial in developing a treatment program for patients undergoing rehabilitation. The test can also detect small amounts of substances, helping to minimise false-positive and false-negative results.

A consent form for testing below a pen and testing equipment

Drug and Alcohol Testing Procedures and Implementation

It is important for employers and employees to follow instructions when undergoing drug and alcohol testing. An essential factor of effective implementation is establishing a clear and well-defined policy. This policy communicates to employees what is expected of them, the consequences of non-compliance, and the testing procedures. Companies may seek legal advice to ensure the policy adheres to relevant laws and standards.

Another important consideration is obtaining employee consent before testing. Employers or the testing agency explain the purpose of the test and other relevant information. The preparations also involve setting up a secure testing site and devices to collect the samples. This approach minimises possible contamination.

There are specific chain of custody procedures and requirements for each testing method. It includes the proper specimen collection technique, documentation, storage, transport, and analysis. After the analysis, the laboratory prepares the results and reports them to the employer. Those with a non-negative result undergo further testing for validation. Employees with positive results may face disciplinary actions.

The Legal Implications

Alcohol and drug tests can have several implications that both employers and employees need to be aware of. Firstly, the testing policies should comply with applicable regulations, including privacy laws. Adhering to standard procedures helps mitigate legal risks. Secondly, employers must ensure to have reasonable grounds for conducting such tests.

Moreover, employees with positive test results may face consequences, depending on the policy. Disciplinary measures often include suspensions, grounds for transfer, or even termination. Therefore, it is crucial to handle the situation with sensitivity and in compliance with local laws. Proper documentation is also essential to avoid legal challenges.

A woman giving a seminar

Drug and Alcohol Testing Training and Accreditation

It is vital for individuals conducting drug and alcohol testing to have proper training and accreditation. This ensures the accuracy, reliability, and validity of the test procedure. Inaccurate results due to wrong implementation can have a negative impact on the individual and the organisation. Individuals who want to work as collectors may enrol in accredited programs.

The training equips students with essential information on the different substances and their effects, as well as indicators of impairment. Then, they will learn how to properly collect specimens and the chain of custody procedures. It includes how to document, store, and transport the samples to the laboratory. Most importantly, the program teaches students how to analyse the specimens using laboratory equipment, test kits, and breathalysers.

The training program offers theoretical and practical approaches to ensure that individuals are well-informed about the alcohol and drug testing industry. Furthermore, individuals must check if a specific course is in compliance with regulatory bodies, such as the National Association of Testing Authorities (NATA) in Australia.

How to Get Accredited?

  • Individuals may enrol in Australian Standards or NATA-recognised training programs or courses
  • One course is HLTPAT005 – Collect specimens for drugs of abuse testing. This program covers testing procedures using urine, oral fluid, and breath samples.
  • Pass the written and practical examinations. The practical test involves simulation in actual settings.
  • Complete any necessary course requirements.
  • After successful completion, participants will receive a Statement of Attainment, depending on the training program.
  • Apply for accreditation from an agency that oversees alcohol and drug testing. It typically involves submitting an application form, proof of completion, and paying the necessary fees.

Conclusion

Drug and alcohol testing is an important measure for ensuring the safety and well-being of employees. It involves testing individuals to detect the presence of illegal drugs and alcohol in their system. This approach can help identify safety risks and take appropriate steps to prevent accidents and injuries. Additionally, it helps to determine employees with substance use disorders and offers assistance for treatment or rehabilitation. The test involves various methods, such as urine, saliva, breath, hair, and blood testing.

Each test method has its advantages and limitations. Hence, employers must use the appropriate method, depending on the situation. Moreover, it is important for companies and individuals to follow the procedures and protocols in workplace testing. This helps maintain the integrity of the sample and the accuracy of the test results. With these safeguards in place, organisations can maintain a safe, productive, and healthy work environment.

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