Workers drug test numbers skyrocket

Last updated 05:00 07/07/2013

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Workplace drug and alcohol testing is skyrocketing as bosses use the tool to weed out poorly performing staff, vet candidates and keep workplaces safe.

Screening is expanding from traditional safety-sensitive jobs like forestry to sectors including finance and government, as bosses move to ensure they're getting the best staff in tough economic times and intolerance of drugs and alcohol at work grows.

The news comes as the Government is set to introduce new requirements from July 15, under which beneficiaries with work obligations will be required to take and pass a drug test when applying for jobs or training courses that ask for one.

The New Zealand Drug Detection Agency figures show that between 2011 and 2012 its alcohol screening tests rose 32 per cent, with 39,369 tests administered. After doing 29,000 drug tests in 2008 it forecast it would probably do 90,000 this year.

Chief executive Chris Hilson said where once it tested 12 sectors, including construction and transport, it now screened 23. There was a marked uptake among white-collar industries, and many middle and senior level managers were being tested before being appointed.

Most were being urine-tested, although saliva and blood tests could also be done.

Drug Testing Services managing director Jo Kirk said sales of its testing kits were up around 200 per cent on last year. It was also seeing a surge in demand for self-tests, with employers training their own staff to administer them.

Sales of testing kits for synthetic cannabinoids - the target of the proposed Psychoactive Substances Bill going through Parliament - increased 300 per cent in the past month, she said.

Employers were now testing for that as often as illegal substances such as cannabis, opiates, methamphetamine, amphetamine, cocaine and other drugs.

Prescription drugs like benzodiazepines were also tested for.

More random testing has seen an increase of four per cent to around 17 per cent in the number of non-negative tests, Kirk said.

Duayne Cloke, site services manager for Pro Med, which trains drug testers, says the trend is now so marked most New Zealand workplaces will soon be drug testing.

Many were testing because others were.

"They don't want to be the only one that's not because, basically, they'll end up with all the deadwood."

Wellington employment barrister Karen Radich said alcohol was also a significant concern for employers, with staff turning up "so hung over they can't work" or calling in sick because of a hangover.

Any workplace can have a drug-testing policy, but procedures must be clear.

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Farry and Co employment lawyer Kirsten Maclean said staff must know the circumstances in which testing will be done, and what the disciplinary procedures are. The conditions should be included in employment contracts.

She said legal issues usually arose when policies weren't clear, or if workers felt they were being unfairly targeted.

Some workers had won compensation after being unjustifiably dismissed because of drug tests.

Last year, a Nelson roofer was awarded $15,000 after being sacked after

a random drug test. The ERA found there was no reasonable cause to test him at the time, and it was not the action a fair or reasonable employer would have taken.

Otorohanga mayor Dale Williams, who chairs the Mayors Taskforce for Jobs, said testing was becoming standard practice.

For many employers operating with a lean workforce due to tougher trader conditions, the tests were an economic necessity. They were also fearful of any potential liability for workplace accidents, he said.

He said good employers were saying "we reserve the right to be confident at all times that our current workforce is in the best possible condition".

Kawerau mayor Malcolm Campbell says drug abuse is a major issue in the Bay of Plenty, where many work in safety-sensitive industries such as forestry.

A member of the mayoral task force, he said two trucking companies in Whakatane had 21 positions to fill, but applicants repeatedly failed drug tests.

"Here we are, we're trying to create jobs for jokers . . . and that sort of shit's going on. It's quite demoralising, to be honest."

Part of the problem was drugs were so readily available, and their use had become normalised. Employers were fed up.

"They've had a gutsful, to be honest, and if people can't come to work without being bloody drugged, well then we've got a real issue on our hands," Campbell said.

Labour Minister Simon Bridges said employers were already seeing pushback from staff, some of whom were winning reinstatement after being fired over drug use.

"But . . . where a responsible employer wants to take a strong line on these issues, I think the law, providing correct process is followed, will back them."

Bridges put the "marked trend" down to a growing intolerance of drugs and alcohol in the workplace, but said employers were not demanding regulatory reform.

"On the whole, I back sensible employers in this space. I do think we want safer, higher performing workplaces that may sometimes mean zero tolerance, but it's not quite a case of one size fits all."


Construction, transport, mining, oil and gas, agriculture, engineering, power, contractors, professional/technical services, forestry, waste management, labour hire, manufacturing, retail, health, local and central government, education, household services, wholesale trade, tourism, services, finance. Source: NZDDA 

- Sunday Star Times

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