Drug & Alcohol testing in the workplace

Paris Lynch                

Employee Relations Officer

Employers have a duty of care to provide and maintain a safe working environment, so far as is reasonably practicable. This duty of care extends to the usage of drugs and alcohol in the workplace. Workers, including employees and contractors, who attend the workplace, under the influence of drugs and/or alcohol, could place others in harm’s way. It is important for employers to have an effective drug and alcohol policy to maintain this duty, demonstrating a commitment to the safety and wellbeing of employees and workers. A drug and alcohol policy will differ depending on the industry in which the business operates in and the risks associated with the tasks workers are undertaking. It is important to take these factors into consideration before implementing a policy. Not having a policy, or having a policy that is not appropriate, may limit the businesses ability to manage workers who present to work under the influence of drugs and/or alcohol.

To learn more about what to include in a Drug and Alcohol policy, contact our Employee Relations Advice team by phoning (08) 9365 7660 or email advice@cciwa.com. If you would like access to a template Drug and Alcohol policy and other important pro-forma letters, you can purchase our Managing Drugs and Alcohol Kit here.

When do I test an Employee?

Drug and alcohol testing involves an intrusion into the privacy of an individual. However, case law has established that in some instances an intrusion into the privacy of employees is necessary. Testing for Drug & Alcohol use in Australian workplaces is not uncommon. And for some industries, it is required.

Before requesting employees to undertake drug and alcohol testing, they must be aware of the methods and types of testing required. This should be contained within the company’s Drug and Alcohol policy. Types of testing can include the following:

Pre-employment testing – generally conducted to determine whether an employee is fit for work prior to an offer of employment.

Pre-site visit testing – determining fitness for work prior to mobilising to a high-risk environment such as a mine site.

Random testing – drug and alcohol testing conducted on a random group of workers without advance notice.

For Cause testing – used when a worker is presenting behaviours suggesting the person may be under the influence of drugs and/or alcohol.

Certain methods may not be appropriate for all industries. For example, in a predominately office-based environment, conducting random testing may not be reasonable as the work carried out is not inherently dangerous.

It is important to conduct a risk assessment before deciding which method your business should include in the policy. This may be done in consultation with employees. The assessment should consider the tasks workers perform and the likely impact drug and alcohol use may have regarding safety.  The content of the policy will depend on the industry in which the business operates, and the risks associated with the tasks a worker undertakes. Our dedicated Safety and Risk team can assist with these assessments, phone (08) 9365 7660 for more information. 

Types of Testing

Common drugs that are detected in testing can include alcohol, amphetamines, benzodiazepines, opiates, cannabinoids, and cocaine. Testing for these substances can be undertaken using different types of tests, such as:

  • breath testing;
  • urine testing;
  • blood testing; and
  • saliva testing.

While the different testing types provide flexibility for employers, it is important to note some testing types are more reliable.

Screening and Confirmatory Tests

A screening test will establish whether a substance or suspected substance has been used. Where a screening test has generated a non-negative result, a confirmatory test should be undertaken. If the confirmatory test is negative, the employee can be directed to resume their normal duties. However, if an employer has good reason to believe the employee may not be fit for work, a further medical examination by a registered medical practitioner may be conducted.

Action following a positive result

The drug & alcohol policy should include the actions employers can take following a positive drug and/or alcohol test. When drafting the policy, the type of work, and working environment needs to be taken into consideration to establish the appropriate course of action. There is currently an increased focus on treating employees who are impacted by drugs and alcohol as having an illness, and recent decisions have shifted focus towards rehabilitation and support as opposed to disciplinary action.

However, depending on the severity and circumstances of the case, a breach of the Drug and Alcohol policy may warrant termination of employment. In the case of Robert Bennett v Viterra Operations Pty Ltd[1], the Fair Work Commission found a long-term employee had been fairly dismissed after he produced a blood alcohol sample that was double the limit in the company’s policy. This determination was based on the findings that the employee worked within a high-risk environment and that the company had applied its drug and alcohol policy consistently across the company. In some cases, dismissal will not always be appropriate and alternative actions should be considered.  

Need advice on a particular situation involving Drug & Alcohol testing? Contact CCIWA’s Employee Relations Advice Centre team on 9365 7660 or email advice@cciwa.com

[1] Robert Bennett v Viterra Operations Pty Ltd [2017] FWC 665

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