Sorted on Saturday, sacked on Monday morning
Published by The Guardian – Monday 21 April, 2003
Copyright: The Guardian
Would you pass a random test at work for drugs or alcohol? You might be about to find out, reports Denis Campbell
6.30, Monday morning: Peter doesn’t feel too bad, considering. A bit cloudy-headed perhaps, after a weekend with the lads in Barcelona celebrating his mate Jason’s 30th, but nothing serious. Maybe that final beer on the flight back last night wasn’t a great idea.
9am: after coffee, orange juice and toast, Peter starts perking up. The cobwebs have gone, and just as well. There’s a sales pitch to a prospective new client at 2pm, and he’s the firm’s best talker.
9.30: a tap on the shoulder. It’s Derek, head of personnel. ‘Morning, Peter. Can I borrow you for a moment?’
Derek takes Peter downstairs to a side-room where a white-coated woman is waiting. ‘Peter, this is Caroline, from our health screening company. I saw from the records that you haven’t been drug-tested since joining us last year. Everyone’s meant to have at least one a year. Won’t take long.’
Peter begins worrying. The alcohol will have worn off by now – an hour for every unit consumed, so it shouldn’t be a problem – but what about that ecstasy tablet on Saturday night? Sweating slightly now, he hands over his urine sample.
How quickly, he wonders, does E leave the system… 24 hours? Or is it 48? It’s a week, actually. Which is why the next day Peter is summoned to his boss’s office. ‘Sorry, Pete, we love your work but we just don’t want drug-users on the staff,’ says the managing director in his Stateside drawl. ‘Orders from the chiefs in Illinois. Good luck in finding a new job.’
Top salesman or not, Peter is out. When he read his contract he was more interested in what bonuses he’d get and didn’t notice that the firm could test anyone during working hours for ‘substances of abuse’ – and fire without compensation anyone whose sample proved positive.
If Peter’s story sounds far- fetched, think again. Random drug and alcohol-testing is well on its way to becoming common practice in British workplaces. An estimated 10 per cent of companies, employing 2.6 million workers, already use them. Scared that the consequences of a mistake made by an employee under the influence of an illicit substance could prove costly, a growing number of firms are insisting that their staff are tested.
Some protest that workers are falling victim to an Orwellian import from America, which is increasingly puritanical and censorious in its attitude to smoking, drinking and drug use, and that civil liberties are being trampled in the process. But that apprehension is doing nothing to halt the drift towards a world where indulgence in your private life could cost you your career.
‘It’s understandable why more employers are doing this, especially in areas of work where safety is an issue,’ says Mike Broad of Personnel Today magazine. ‘But it’s controversial because they are trying to monitor something that doesn’t happen in work time. You may be responsible in your work time, and not drink at lunchtime for example, but this forces you to be responsible in your leisure time as well. These tests are like saying to a member of staff, “on Saturday night you can’t smoke a joint or get really trashed or do anything excessive because on Monday morning you may be over the limits set down, fail a test and pay for that with your job”.’
Owen Tudor, a health and safety policy officer at the TUC, said: ‘It has been quite widespread in the United States since the mid-1980s, but we have noted a trend towards it among both American companies based here and British companies trying to ape their US counterparts.’
British transport company Stagecoach introduced staff drug testing last year after lengthy consultation with its workforce. Now all bus and train drivers can be tested at any time for recent drug or alcohol consumption.
Personnel Today has found that at least one in 10 employers already tests staff like this, and another 30 per cent of British companies are considering following suit.
Pilots, surgeons, air traffic controllers, mechanics, operators of dangerous equipment and those who drive for a living all require mental sharpness, physical dexterity and judgment which could be reduced by the lingering effect of, say, cannabis or cocaine.
Dr Jenny Leeser, clinical director of Bupa’s occupational health division, says: ‘More and more employers are getting interested in ensuring their employees are in peak condition, and are implementing stricter policies about, for example, alcohol, as a way of ensuring their investment in people is paying off.’
Peter Whittam of Huntingdon-based Mediprotektor UK, which produces diagnostic kits used to detect drug use, says employers’ fear at being sued for a blunder by a member of their staff is the main reason for drug testing. ‘There’s a growing awareness that a firm could be held liable in a court for something an employee has done.’ The possible introduction of corporate manslaughter legislation is also concentrating minds.
Random drug testing has become common on the railways since Morris Graham, the driver of a train that crashed at London’s Cannon Street station in 1991, killing two people and injuring more than 500, was found to have traces of cannabis in a urine sample he gave after the accident. A Health and Safety Executive inquiry ruled that there was no evidence that Graham failed to apply the brakes properly, but British Rail said the finding of 50 nanograms per millilitre of cannabinoid products would have left him ‘unfit for driving duties’.
Two years ago British Airways introduced drug and alcohol spot checks on pilots and cabin crew after a television documentary revealed that pilots were drinking heavily hours before taking charge of aircraft. Doctors and nurses may be next.
Employee drug testing is now one of Britain’s boom industries, involving several dozen specialist companies and worth an estimated £200m a year. Medscreen, based in London’s Docklands, carries out about 175,000 tests a year at about £65 a time. ‘We work with 450 companies, two-thirds of which are in safety-critical sectors like oil, transport and dangerous manufacturing,’ says the firm’s Lindsay Hadfield. ‘We test the obvious people you’d expect, like pilots and air traffic controllers, but also baggage checkers-in and aircraft maintenance crews.’
The tests are mainly intended as a deterrent, but they also identify offenders. ‘Around 3-4 per cent of those 175,000 tests come up positive, either for drugs, alcohol or both, and those people are usually the subject of disciplinary action,’ said Hadfield.
Rail companies insist that any employee who has a problem should declare it and will receive help. Anyone who fails to do so, and then fails a test, is deemed guilty of gross misconduct and dismissed.
‘There are fewer white-collar jobs at the moment where safety issues are as critical, but that’s going to change,’ said Bupa’s Dr Leeser. Bupa conducts 26,000 tests a year and is seeing a 20 per cent year-on-year rise in that figure. ‘If you are under the influence, there could be consequences for a whole range of things you do at work,’ said Leeser. ‘An admin worker, for example, could injure their hand in the office guillotine, be off work as a result, and so cost the company money. People under the influence can easily make errors of judgment because their brain is working too slowly or too quickly, depending on the drug they have taken.’
Random checks will soon become much more common in banking, where a single misplaced computer stroke in a transaction to buy or sell shares could be very costly. ‘There’s a move towards screening in business-critical and financial-critical jobs, rather than just the traditional safety-critical lines of work,’ says Medscreen’s Hadfield. Some traders and stockbrokers in the City already undergo such tests.
Workplace drug testing is becoming more common at the same time as the consumption of illegal substances is rising. Numerous studies have shown that smoking a joint or taking an occasional E happens far more often, and is far more socially acceptable.
So far this new testing trend has not produced a test case in the High Court, but it can only be a matter of time before an employee sacked for failing a drug test challenges his dismissal by arguing that what he did and took on Saturday night did not affect his performance at work. Lawyers are divided about what will happen when such a case arises. The consensus is that anyone whose contract allows their employer to compel them to be tested probably wouldn’t get very far. But sections of the European Convention on Human Rights, which guarantees a right to respect for private life, may help protect staff who indulge in their leisure time.
The TUC is among those who believe the trend has as much to do with employers’ nosiness about what their staff get up to in their spare time as any safety or public liability issues. ‘Very often this is just an infringement of people’s civil liberties and a way of checking on people’s personal habits outside the workplace,’ says Tudor.
In the US, companies are used to having much more control over their employees’ lives than in Britain. Some American companies’ conditions of employment already forbid staff from taking part in risky activities such as skydiving or riding a motorbike. Now we, too, are slowly succumbing to this latest version of the American way of life.