Getting legal advice

Drug and alcohol testing in the workplace

The inappropriate use of drugs and alcohol exposes a workplace to a variety of work health and safety risks.

Employers and ‘persons conducting a business or undertaking’ (PCBU) are legally obligated to manage these risks under the Work Health and Safety Act 2011

Drug and alcohol testing in the workplace is a strategy employers can use to manage work health and safety risks. These tests may be random, voluntary, ‘for cause’ testing or another type of test.

Before conducting any testing, it’s important to be mindful of the drug and alcohol testing Australian standards. Employers should also know the different testing options, as well as their rights and limitations when conducting testing on employees.

What are the drug and alcohol testing standards in Australia?

There is no specific standard for workplace drug and alcohol testing. However, employers are legally obligated to eliminate or manage risk associated with drug and alcohol misuse as part of the WHS Act 2011.

Australia has a range of standards related to drug and alcohol testing at work. These provide clear procedures for different methods of testing. Guidelines for equipment, as well as for the handling, disposal and reporting of specimens, are also covered.

These three relevant standards include:

When is drug and alcohol testing appropriate?

Although drug and alcohol testing may be appropriate in a variety of work contexts, it’s essential in high risk and safety-critical jobs. This is because the misuse of drugs and alcohol could harm people in the workplace, as well as the general public.

For example, some aviation industry organisations have a drug and alcohol management plan in place for pilots and air traffic controllers. In addition, the Civil Aviation Safety Authority conducts independent random drug and alcohol testing to audit these programs. 

Other occupations that fall into this category include transport drivers (such as train drivers), operators of dangerous machinery, firefighters and military personnel. Workers that handle toxic substances should also be considered.

Managing risk with a drug and alcohol testing policy

If an employer intends to carry out drug and alcohol testing in the workplace in Australia, the workplace should have a drug and alcohol testing policy. 

This policy should clearly outline the definitions for acceptable and unacceptable drug and alcohol use. Details on testing, such as when, how and why tests will be conducted, and by whom, should also be stated. Finally, it should outline how results will determine if an employee is unfit for duty and the consequences of a positive test. Employers should take care to include the circumstances where a positive test could result in employee dismissal.

All employees need to be aware of and understand the policy and cooperate with reasonable policies and procedures.

Options for drug and alcohol testing in the workplace

There are three main types of drug and alcohol tests, including blood tests, urine tests and saliva tests. Different tests also have different levels of accuracy and different turnaround times for results.

In addition, employers have a range of options for how drug and alcohol testing is conducted in the workplace. These include:

  • Random testing, which is unannounced and designed to identify any current employees who are misusing drugs and alcohol in the workplace.

  • Blanket testing, where all employees within an organisation are tested in one single event.

  • ‘For cause’ or targeted testing, if an employer has reasonable suspicion that a worker is under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

  • Pre-employment testing, where an employee is subject to drug and alcohol tests before commencing work, or before heading out on an assignment.

  • Post-accident/incident testing, where employees are tested after an accident occurs in the workplace.

  • Post-positive result testing, where an employee who previously tested positive must test negative before returning to work.

  • Rehabilitation testing, for employees who are currently undergoing, or have recently completed, rehabilitation for drug or alcohol misuse.

  • Voluntary testing, where an employee elects to be tested for drugs and alcohol of their own accord.

Regardless of which options an employer chooses to implement, it’s essential to outline this clearly in a drug and alcohol testing policy. Employers must also consult an adequate range of providers during the selection process. 

There is also a strict set of procedures for drug and alcohol testing that must be followed:

  • Test subjects must receive a sample which they themselves can have independently tested. This is known as a ‘split sample’.

  • Testing must adhere to the chain of custody. Throughout the testing process, the samples may be moved, and different people may handle them. The time, place and person who handles the samples should be clearly documented. These also need to comply with Australian standards and requirements.

  • Tests can be conducted by a professional provider or in-house staff. Regardless of the option, the person performing the test must be appropriately trained in the drug testing system. Employers must also choose accredited laboratories for drug and alcohol testing in the workplace.

  • Employee confidentiality needs to be maintained throughout the process.

  • According to the Fair Work Commission, it is not best practice for an employee’s direct manager to take a urine sample. In addition, the sample should not be taken by someone who is well-known to the employee.

Know the limitations of drug and alcohol testing

Although drug and alcohol testing is a common strategy used to detect the misuse of drugs and alcohol in the workplace, there are limitations. Employers need to be aware of these and be mindful of the risk of legal challenge before taking action following a positive result.

Drug and alcohol testing technology is not infallible and can be a poor and inaccurate measurement of impairment. Independent scientific confirmation from an accredited laboratory is necessary if a positive result is going to stand up in court.

Drug tests are also unable to determine if a drug user is a casual user, recreational user, or if they regularly use the drug. Some drugs, such as cannabis, may be detected in urine up to a month after it is used. Therefore, it’s difficult to determine that a positive drug test means a substance was recently used and directly caused impairment.

Drug and alcohol testing can be valuable for employers seeking to identify drug and alcohol misuse at work. However, this should be used as part of a holistic risk management strategy that promotes a healthy and safe workplace for all.

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