The Guardian March 5, 2003

Testing for drugs in the workplace
Concerns for the labour movement

by Bob Briton

"If you choose to use alcohol or drugs, that's your business  if you 
choose to do it in the workplace, it's our business." So goes a line from a 
leaflet distributed widely in the building industry by the Construction and 
Other Industries Drug and Alcohol Program. The attitude expresses the 
concern of building unions at the high rate of drug and alcohol use by 
workers in the industry and the desire to intervene in the interests of 
workplace health and safety.

The Building Trades Group of Unions has even won an award for its drug and 
alcohol program from the United Nations Office for Drug control and Crime 
Prevention  the only workplace program in the world to receive such 

Many larger workplaces have enterprise agreements hammered out with the 
relevant unions that contain procedures for dealing with instances of drug 
use in the workplace. Most have an emphasis on counselling and 
rehabilitation rather than penalties, at least in the first place. More and 
more companies are gearing up with drug testing regimes to back up the "no 
drugs at work' message.

Leading transport company, Linfox, is about to introduce random testing for 
its 5000 staff around Australia. Another major carrier, Toll, is also 
considering them. Bill Noonan, Victorian State Secretary of the Transport 
Workers Union says that within three years, up to 25,000 workers in the 
national transport industry will have to face up to drug testing.

"It's inevitable", he told the Herald Sun last June. The same report quoted 
a Linfox source about the testing: "The plan is to have it put to bed in 
the next twelve months. It will be random, pre-employment and post-incident 
testing. You can't argue against it."

In the US, 81% of large corporations now insist on testing prospective 
employees for drugs use. In Australia, at least 100 major companies are 
testing and a growing number of recruitment agencies are having tests 
conducted on behalf of would be employers.

World wide there has been a spiralling growth in workplace drug testing 
over the past decade. It's only been in recent years that a chorus of 
protests has gone up at a number of undesirable aspects of the practice.

Bosses' concern?

Indeed, it would be hard to argue against measures that would prevent an 
inebriated pilot from taking charge of a plane, a drug-affected driver from 
barrelling down the highway at the wheel of a road train or an intoxicated 
building worker from working at dizzying heights on an inner city project.

And Australia clearly has problems with drugs and alcohol that cannot help 
but impact on the workplace. Seventy-four thousand Australians are addicted 
to heroin. One in 17 of the Australian Defence Force personnel needed 
clinical help with their drinking or drug abuse according to a report 
released two years ago.

A study conducted by the Queensland University of Technology Centre for 
Accident Research found that one in three police officers drink to 
dangerous levels and, ten years ago, up to 20 per cent of construction 
workers were drinking at a level that that was injurious to their health.

The examples could go on but space wouldn't allow.

Why, even Workplace Relations Minister, Tony Abbott, has admitted to having 
had "half a puff" of marijuana while on a footy tour of the US in his wild 
teenage years.

Questions must be asked, however, when the same bosses that are happy to 
see you handle toxic substances and work you until you are so fatigued as 
to be dangerous on the job suddenly profess a concern for the health of 
their workers.

Sure, they will also argue that a drug-free work place is better for the 
bottom line, that it will reduce the number of compensation claims they may 
have to contend with as a result of accidents, and so on. But other 
questions remain.

"Pee in here, or else!"

The first and perhaps most obvious objection to the urine test most 
commonly used for drug detection is that it is usually very degrading.

As long ago as 1992, the NSW Privacy Commissioner published the account of 
a test given to a 40-year-old mother. "I was led into a very small room 
with a toilet, sink and a desk. I was given a container in which to urinate 
by the attendant. I waited for her to turn her back before pulling down my 
pants, but she told me she had to watch everything I did. I pulled down my 
pants, put the container in place  as she bent down to watch  gave her 
a sample and even then she didn't look away. I had to use toilet paper as 
she watched and then pulled up my pants."

Last year it was reported that MIM had angered its workers by installing 
cameras in the toilets at its Mount Isa mine. The company apparently wanted 
to be sure that workers undergoing urine tests for drugs were not cheating.

Another major problem with the testing method currently favoured by 
employers and growing number of companies specialising in such surveillance 
is that it is more effective in detecting some drugs rather than others. A 
urine test will pick up evidence of marijuana use while passing over 
indicators for arguably more dangerous drugs. Marijuana will leave a 
calling card in your system for 28 days while heroin, cocaine and alcohol 
will pass through in a matter of hours.

The statement "what you do in your time is your business" becomes a 
nonsense in the case of marijuana. The smoking of a joint on the weekend 
will most likely produce an adverse result in a test on Monday. You might 
be dismissed, especially if you are a casual or subject to a less tolerant 
enterprise agreement (EBA) or individual work contract (AWA). You might be 
classified as having a drug problem or, in other ways, exposed to what has 
been called "lifestyle discrimination".

The discussion society needs to have

Marijuana is a prohibited substance. The degree of tolerance before the law 
for its possession and use varies from state to state and from time to time 
but in the final analysis its use is still illegal in Australia.

There is no doubt that its use while working would impair your efficiency. 
A person affected by marijuana should not be in control of a vehicle or 
other equipment.

There is a steady stream of evidence pointing to a link between some 
psychological disorders and long-term heavy use of the drug. It would be 
silly to argue for some sort of privileged position for the drug when it 
comes to the workplace.

Some conclusions need to be made, however, from the fact that its use is 
very widespread and that it leaves evidence of THC (the offending chemical 
in marijuana) in urine and other tests for so long after contact and where 
the worker is not suffering any impairment of their capacities.

A La Trobe University study revealed last year that 62 per cent of workers 
in the building industry use the drug, as do 52 per cent of hairdressers 
and 38 per cent of manufacturing workers.

High proportions of workers, then, are at risk of dismissal in the worst 
instance for the use in their own time of a drug still widely believed, 
rightly or wrongly, to be relatively harmless.

The way may have been shown by the example of the workers at BHP's iron ore 
sites in the Pilbara in WA. In negotiations over what was a very intrusive 
testing regime, unions were able to get BHP to depart from the Australian 
Standard by doubling the level of cannaboid metabolites (from marijuana) to 
be regarded as acceptable for their testing purposes. This standard is less 
likely to discriminate against light "social use" of marijuana out of work 

Privacy issues

There are many privacy issues associated with the increasingly common 
practice. What happens to those staff records of adverse findings following 
a weekend's "indiscretion"? Is this information given to the recruitment 
company that found your current job, to be used later on to ensure that you 
do not get any further jobs from them?

Other problems persist with the reliability of drugs tests. There have been 
reports of workers who have tested positive for opiates after eating poppy 
seed muffins, as have those who have taken over-the-counter pain-reliever 
codeine (an ingredient of Panadeine). Other legal and harmless substances 
have turned up positive tests for cocaine.

Last year, workers at the South Blackwater Coal Mine refused to submit to 
random drug tests for the sorts of reasons discussed above. The workers, 
represented in their dispute by the Construction, Forestry, Mining and 
Energy Union, argued that technologies already exist to test impairment to 
a worker's capacities and thus largely avoid the intrusive sample testing.

The OPSAT system and Fit 2000 use a computer to carry out reaction tests 
that would pick out intoxicated workers. The union argued that only when 
the reaction test is failed should a drug test be administered.

To date, the authorities have insisted on the old regime. In considering 
this debate, it must be pointed out (as Workers Online has) that OPSAT and 
Fit 2000 are in a sense competitors in a growing drugs testing technologies 

In any case, the fact that managements prefer the old ways is quite 

An "impaired" worker may not necessarily be "intoxicated". It is not only 
alcohol and illegal drugs identifiable in workplace testing that may impair 
a worker's ability on the job.

Many other legal, over-the-counter medications may have an equal or worse 
impairment effect on workers than light drug or alcohol use. Anti-
histimines, for allergy and hayfever relief are renowned for causing 
drowsiness, especially when used in combination with codeine in "cold and 
flu" tablets or the pain-reliever Mersyndol.

Travel sickness tablets have a similar effect, as do tablets for gastro-
intestinal cramping (Buscopan, Donnatab).

If significant numbers of workers failed impairment test under the OPSAT or 
Fit 2000 systems, it would require employers to take a more lenient stance 
on sick leave.

An "impairment test" might also provide results that put the brakes on the 
methods being used out there in deregulated workplace land.

For example, two years ago the House of Representatives Transport Committee 
reported that fatigue was four times more likely to cause impairment for 
workers in the transport industry than either drugs or alcohol.

In fact, the "productivity" demands being placed on workers in the 
transport industry are among the major reasons that drivers and other 
transport industry workers reach for amphetamines.

Issues the bosses avoid

Despite the Transport Committee's findings and recommendations, the 
employers are still more ready, willing and able to drug test than 
implement changes to reduce the pressure on workers.

"Busting" drug using workers is one thing but we might have no workers left 
if we send all the exhausted ones home. So goes the bosses' reasoning.

And this brings us to one of the supreme injustices of the drug-testing 
question. Obviously, the reasons for drug taking in a society are complex 
but growing social inequality, unemployment, increased pressures on the 
job, the related increased incidence of workplace bullying, heightened 
insecurity and other capitalist contagions are surely among them.

In a society like ours, these factors are still outside our control and 
many of us fall victim to these pressures. As we know, the ruling class 
loves to blame its victims. Rather than making workplaces human friendly, 
it is far easier to weed out the drug users.

A question of class and control

There is a strong ideological element in the current trends towards drug 
testing. From the US (the home of all these management ideas) comes the 
news that drug testing has not helped the bottom line after all. While some 
corporations are claiming a cash benefit, many others aren't so bold.

Warner Corporation repairs plumbing heating and air-conditioning. It says 
that its testing regime is saving it US$75,000 a year for an outlay of 

Far more common lately are reports to the contrary. Eugene Ferraro of 
Business Controls told Business Week Online that "[Employers] say it's not 
providing the return on investment that they expected. There are just not 
enough positive results."

Agilent Technologies has gone so far as to suspend its program until the 
current slightly tighter labour market loosens up.

The better organised and resourced professionals are usually not tested in 
case they litigate and it is needless to add that neither are executives or 
the political elites.

Ronald Regan was pulled back from volunteering for the tests he promoted as 
part of the "war on drugs" when it was realised that the drugs being used 
to keep the aging President alive, active and coherent would have made him 
fail the test.

Locally, NSW Police Minister Michael Costa was not obliged to answer a 
question in parliament about whether he would submit to the same sort of 
random drug test now obligatory for police when the enquiry was ruled out 
of order.

However, masses of lower paid workers regularly have to submit. Barbara 
Ehrenreich is a US author and journalist.

She took months away from her relatively privileged lifestyle to find out 
what it is like for the millions of her fellow Americans who work long days 
for $5 and $7 an hour. The result of her research is contained in the book 
Nickel and Dimed: Undercover in Low-wage USA.

Ehrenreich concludes, "The real function of these [drug and personality] 
tests is to convey information not to the employer but to the potential 
employee, and the information is always the same: You will have no secrets 
from us."

And further, "if you want to stack Cheerio boxes or vacuum hotel rooms in 
chemically fascist America, you have to be willing to squat down and pee in 
front of a health worker."


The trade union movement must continue to press for the sorts of demands 
that form the core of the construction industry's award winning program. 
Workplace programs must advocate education, individual responsibility, peer 
support, rehabilitation and job security.

There should be training so that staff can detect drug-related and other 
forms of impairment to work performance in their colleagues.

The confidentiality of staff records of counselling and other measures has 
to be ensured. In addition, alternatives to demeaning forms of testing 
should be explored as a matter of high priority.

It appears that Australia has already taken quite a few steps along the 
path that has led the USA to its current oppressive position with regard to 
drug testing. It is not being "soft on drugs" for the labour movement to 
insist that the same respect for the dignity and privacy of the "higher 
ups" be shown to lower paid workers, also.

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