Drug and alcohol testing in the UK – Are we ready for it?

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Drug and alcohol testing has been part of pre-employment screening in the US for several years, with mandatory drug testing in federally regulated workplaces coming into force in 1988. Drug screening might act as a deterrent against drug experimentation and provide greater health and safety in the workplace. But UK employers have been slow to take up the practice. Why is this, and are UK employers ready to make drug testing part of their regular pre-employment screening?

Legally, UK employers can carry out drug and alcohol testing only in limited circumstances. Employers must restrict testing to only employees that need to be tested, for example if working under the influence of drugs or alcohol could pose a risk to the health and safety of workers or members of the public, or the business itself. Workers can’t be forced to take a drug test but if they refuse when an employer has grounds to request a test, workers might face disciplinary action.

With 31% of the UK population saying that they have taken illegal drugs and 21% saying that they continue to do so occasionally, the use of recreational drugs continues to rise. As a result of this many companies are reluctant to roll out drug testing across their workforce for fear of losing too many workers.

Carrying out drug testing at work can be difficult. Not only must employers be able to prove that a drug test is essential for health and safety reasons, the testing itself can be unreliable. A failed drug test does not necessarily mean that an employee, or potential employee, works under the influence of drugs or alcohol. A recent case of a bus driver who was dismissed as a result of a random drug test resulted in an award of wrongful and unfair dismissal, when it was found that the failed drug test was likely to be the result of the worker handling contaminated money. The worker was awarded ongoing losses for three years.

Discussions surrounding the legalisation of a range of drugs continue to rage. However, it is recommended that all employers have a drugs and alcohol policy as part of their company handbook, this includes getting permission from potential and current employees to carry out screening. ACAS (Advisory Conciliation and Arbitration Service) provide a checklist of what should appear in a drug and alcohol policy on their website.

As technology improves, and UK employment culture catches up to the US, drug and alcohol screening will become more common as part of the recruitment process, to help ensure that workers, companies and members of the public are safe.