Managing the effects of drugs and alcohol in the workplace   

Unfortunately, drug use in Australia is on the rise. In April this year, the latest National Wastewater Drug Monitoring Program Report (Wastewater Report) was released and identified regional WA as having the highest average consumption for methylamphetamine (also known as “Ice,” “Meth” or “Crystal Meth”) in the country, and use is on the rise. This is particularly concerning as Meth use has destructive effects on families and the broader community as well as on the users themselves. The Wastewater Report also found significantly higher levels of smoking and alcohol consumption in the State’s regional areas when compared to metro areas.

So, what does this mean for you and your business?

As an employer, you have a duty of care, a responsibility so far as is practicable, to provide a working environment free from hazards. Section 19 of the Occupational Safety and Health Act 1984 (WA) (OSH Act) outlines how an employer is expected to meet its obligations in this regard. These include:

  • provide and maintain workplaces, plant and systems of work, so far as practical, that don’t expose employees to hazards; and
  • provide information, instruction, training and supervision to employees as is necessary to enable them to perform their work in a manner that they are not exposed to hazards;
  • consult and cooperate with safety and health representatives (if any) and other employees at the workplace about occupational safety and health at work;
  • provide, at the employer’s expense, protective clothing and equipment (also known as PPE) when employees are required to work in environments where hazards are unavoidable; and
  • ensure workers are not exposed to hazards with regards to plant and hazardous substances.

Section 20 of the OSH Act also extends the duty of care to employees, and requires them to:

  • ensure the safety and health of themselves; and
  • act in a way that does not adversely affect the safety or health of any other person at work.

For example, an employee would be in breach of their duty of care if they did not follow a drug and alcohol policy they received training on and attended work while under the influence of drugs.

Failure to comply with these obligations may result in you and/or your employees facing significant fines, even criminal charges.

In order to help you fulfil your obligations under the OSH Act and assist in reducing the presences drugs or alcohol in your workplace, it is recommend that a drug and alcohol policy and associated procedures be implemented.

When implementing a drug and alcohol policy, selecting the most appropriate method for testing, is a common dilemma facing employers. Questions around invasion of privacy and relevance are often considered. Additionally, for workforces that are not based in metropolitan areas or near towns with testing facilities, or where staff work remotely, this can present its own challenges for testing and transportation of specimens for analysis.

In a recent case, the Fair Work Commission (FWC) permitted the use of urine testing by Arnott’s Biscuits Limited (Arnott’s). The key focus of Arnott’s policy and procedures was to deter and manage the risks of long-term drug use within its workforce. The case considered whether invasive urine testing was more appropriate under the circumstances and highlighted the differences between saliva-fluid and urine testing. In this case it was established that neither testing method is perfect and that each one identified different stages of impairment. For example, if an employer is trying to assist in managing the effects of long-term drug use in the workplace and identify a wider range of drugs, urine testing is more appropriate. If, however, the aim is to prevent employees attending the workplace in an impaired state, saliva-fluid testing may be more appropriate, as it can identify very recent drug use. In finding that the sole use of urine testing was not harsh or unreasonable, the FWC took into consideration the circumstances of Arnott’s including; its high-risk work environment, the purpose of the policy as well as the question of privacy.

The above case also provided a list of symptoms and behaviours associated with drug impairment. According to the leading Consultant Toxicologist in the case, there are two types of impairment: acute impairment (which means under immediate effects of recent drug use) and “hangover” effects (which occur after the acute effects have worn-off). In cases of acute impairment, individuals may present as:

  • sleepy or have an unsteady gait;
  • very talkative or have slurred speech;
  • overly alert or are slow to react; and
  • agitated, short tempered or aggressive.

In terms of hangover symptoms, these can include:

  • anxiety or depression; and
  • drowsiness or mind fogginess.

While these lists are not exhaustive, they provide a helpful guide for employers to refer to if they suspect an employee may be under the influence of drugs.

Another thing to consider when implementing a drug and alcohol policy, relates to disciplinary action. Employers may opt for alternatives to disciplinary action, particularly where drug addiction exists, and the relevant role is not high-risk. Rather than terminating the employee in the first instance, employers may consider providing access to employee assistance programs or supporting employees with return to work treatment plans, for example.

 Practical pointers

 A drug and alcohol policy can assist you in the event that an employee attends work while under the influence or impaired by alcohol and/ or drug use. When developing or reviewing a drug and alcohol policy it is important to ask yourself the following questions:

  • What is the policy trying to achieve?
  • Is your business in a high-risk industry (e.g. heavy machinery or transport industries) where impairment could cause serious injury or death?
  • Do you need to know if someone is impaired at the time of the test, or are you trying to support employees struggling with drug and/or alcohol addiction?
  • Is disciplinary action appropriate? If yes, what type?
  • When do you want to test? (i.e. randomly, for-cause etc.)
  • What type of testing is preferred/ practical given the aim of the policy and the locality of staff?

These few questions will assist in determine the detail and flavour of your drug and alcohol policy.

Need more information about how to create and implement a drug and alcohol policy or require a template policy?  Want a current drug and alcohol policy reviewed? We can help. For more information click here or contact the CCI’s Employee Relations Advice Centre team on 9365 7660 or advice@cciwa.com for more information