The new corporate nanny state

21:44, Jun 16 2010

Imagine you're a member of the professional classes: a scientist, a lawyer, an accountant or an analyst. Or, God forbid, a journalist.

Now think back on the last 30 days and ask yourself whether you've engaged in behaviour that might put your employment at risk.

Perhaps you were at a party, a reunion of old mates, an occasion to reminisce about days past while Elton John or Nirvana blared over the stereo system.

Maybe in a fit of bonhomie you even shared a joint, as people sometimes do. That un-Clintonesque inhalation may have jeopardised your future employment.

Reefer, as my father calls it, stays in the system for 30 days and a standard drug and alcohol urine test will reveal the presence of cannabis.

Irrespective of the fact it was last month and in your own time, you're down the road, sunshine.

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Drug and alcohol testing, including random checks, are on the rise and it's not just the ''safety sensitive'' occupations that are now under corporate scrutiny.

Two professionals of my acquaintance were recently asked to pee in a cup. They were fortunate; they were warned of the upcoming indignity.

For one this posed no problem, save embarrassment. The other had to alter his regular behaviour in order to deliver a clear result.

Madison Recruitment's Justin Pipe confirms the trend, saying increasing numbers of professionals are being asked to submit to drug and alcohol testing as part of companies' overall risk management policy.

Usually, Pipe says, it is firms that already have identified ''safety sensitive'' areas, such as operating heavy machinery or onerous driving requirements, that institute such intrusive policy.

On the basis that it is unfair to single out only one employee group, these businesses demand that all workers submit to regular drug and alcohol tests, he says.

Hays' Jason Walker disagrees, noting that such practices are still largely confined to the construction and roading sectors but, he says, testing in these areas are on the rise.

Greg Lloyd, Engineering, Printing and Manufacturing Union general counsel, sides with Pipe. His members, irrespective of the nature of their work, are being asked to provide urine samples for testing.

The EPMU took unsuccessful court action against Air New Zealand over testing of pilots and, Lloyd says, the airline now extends its policy to all members.

Recreational cannabis use is rife in New Zealand.

There are, according to Auckland University's Alcohol and Public Health Research Unit, about 1.5 million pot smokers in this country, about 18 per cent of people aged 15-45.

More than half the adult population have inhaled at one time or another.

Illegality aside, it is uncontroversial to assert that what people do in their own home and in their own time is their business, not that of the Government or their employer.

So, corporate examination of people's personal lives by drug testing represents, at the very least, a gross invasion of privacy.

There is also an issue of fairness.

Cannabis stays in the system for up to 30 days and a positive urine test does not mean an employee is under the influence; it means that at some point in the last month they have consumed an illegal drug.

But many New Zealanders, as Lloyd notes, are appalled at the prospect of people working when cannabis is in their system.

For these people, ''presence equals impairment and impairment equals unsafe'', he says.

Yet how unsafe is cannabis or other drugs for that matter? Historically, military personal have been furnished with methamphetamine to combat tiredness and improve performance in the field.

Numerous studies testing the impact of pot smoking on driving have found no impact on driving ability as users compensate by driving more slowly and carefully, while a few papers find impaired driving.

Drug testing is often justified on the basis of reducing ACC employer contributions, yet these are set by the accident record for the sector. And accidents are, as often as not, a result of oppressive workplace management.

There is a lot of research into the ''medicalisation'' of the workforce, where long hours and an ever increasing workload result in injury, such as occupational overuse syndrome, or excessive drinking in order to combat stress.

Instead of addressing the root cause of these problems  better management of shifts and workload  employers resort to a medical cure to reduce the incidence of OOS or testing to stop drug and alcohol use.

Nobody is arguing in favour of smoking on the job but workplace drug testing is being extended way beyond its initial, although dubious, safety justification.

If it were the Government rather than private companies implementing such policy there would be a public outcry at nanny state intrusion.

Perhaps this can be seen as another example of outsourcing government functions to the private sector.

Welcome to the new corporate nanny state.

Nick Smith is a senior financial journalist.

The Independent