Random testing finds no evidence of illegal drugs - anti-drug zealots now on medication

 

Shock results: Drug and Alcohol Trial finds nothing at the same time as Fair Work Australia sets some guidelines

Uh oh, who'd have thought?

In a result which won't surprise those who thought drugs and alcohol at work were not a problem in local government, but will surprise those who believed that they were, the trial of the Industry Guidelines on alcohol and other drugs found no employees tested positive for illegal drugs and only one tested positive for alcohol.

This result explains why the overwhelming majority of councils are not interested in developing drug and alcohol policies and are certainly not interested in the wasted time, effort, cost and aggravation of random testing.

The Industry Guidelines were developed cooperatively by the Local Government and Shires Associations and the three local government unions – the United Services Union, the Local Government Engineers Association and depa - in 2010 and 2011. It was the first time agreement had been reached between the employer and employee organisations over an area of policy which had been studiously avoided or, if dealt with at all, randomly and inconsistently developed.

As far back as 2006 depa had been encouraging the LGSA and the other unions to reach agreement on drug and alcohol policies that would discourage the introduction of random testing. This is a reaction to news first revealed in a Sunday newspaper that Kempsey had introduced random testing without consulting with the unions.

depa filed a dispute with Hornsby Council and was supported by the LGEA in 2007 and we were able to have the Commission discourage Hornsby from introducing random testing. Later in disputes with Sutherland and Wollongong we were able to convince them that if they were going to test for alcohol then they needed to use the same PCA figures determined as appropriate in the Motor Traffic Act. That is, .05%, .02% for heavy vehicle drivers and no tolerance for P platers.

But unfortunately we were never able to get the USU to support our initiatives until 2010 when a more cooperative approach led to the development of the Industry Guidelines which, amongst other things, restricted random testing to those employees who had already tested positive in either "reasonable suspicion" or "post-incident" testing. This agreement between the three unions was historic and became part of an agreement also with the employer organisations that was formalised in the draft Industry Guidelines.

depa had filed two industrial disputes in 2011. IRC 133/2011 was to allow the Commission to oversee the rollout of the Industry Guidelines in the industry trial and to assist us in managing the results of the trial and whether or not any changes needed to be made as a result of what had been found during the trial. IRC 155/2011 was to prevent Hunter Councils developing their own policy because of an anxiety that they would pick up the pernicious, invasive and less accurate urine testing regime at Upper Hunter.

In these proceedings we were able to have the zealous Hunter Councils agree to participate in the trial. Cessnock, Lithgow, Maitland, Muswellbrook, Newcastle, Port Stephens and Wagga Wagga all agreed to participate.  Wagga Wagga started the trial late and have not yet concluded it.

It was agreed that there would be an option for the participating councils to trial random testing. There was also an assumption (which was clearly wrong) that those councils would canvas this option with their consultative committees to make sure their employees were committed to the process. Unfortunately, none did. A lesson learned from the trial.

There are a number of issues that popped up during the trial which clearly need to be fixed. Employees should not be taken out into the foyer of the Council by the supervisor and have the supervisor announce "we’re here for the drug test"; post-incident testing needs to happen almost immediately after the incident, not three weeks later when the employee comes back from holidays; and if employees are required to provide a saliva sample, the form indicating their agreement needs to acknowledge that it is being provided as part of the compulsory regime at work, and not voluntarily.

Of more concern was a decision taken by some councils to continue the trial of random testing past the agreed trial conclusion date - as if they were above the agreement of the industry parties and could do whatever they wanted, including slipping random testing under people's guards.

While these are easy issues to fix, they confirm that despite the Industry Guidelines, there are plenty of options for HR and management to do stupid things.

The LGSA and the three unions will now meet again on 24 April to consider whether any amendment needs to be made to the guidelines. We are entitled to argue, as a result of the trial, that the cost, distraction and potential negative effects of random testing during the trial did not reveal any evidence whatsoever of there being a problem of drugs at work.

The trial provided no evidence that there was a problem.

Is the industry capable of developing a caring policy?

One of the key issues for councils in managing the fitness of their employees to go to work is the uncomfortable position that employees can find themselves in properly discharging their obligations under the Workplace Safety Act.  Acting in the interest of health and safety to protect yourself or your workmates is not “dobbing” on another employee.

At Hornsby, the draft policy which we opposed was extremely punitive. Only cursory attention was provided to rehabilitation and helping employees but invariably councils will boast of the interest in looking after employees as well as in managing workplace risk.

How do you create a culture at Council that makes people feel comfortable, or allows them to feel that they can make a protected disclosure, in the interests of the health and well-being of their workmates?

Although we thought it unnecessary, it was agreed that there would be a survey of the 2256 employees at the trial councils. Only 34% of those employees who participated in the trial filled out the survey (and not all the respondents to the survey completed every question) so we can wonder about the accuracy of the results. Nevertheless, some of the results are illuminating.

62% of those who participated in the trial and completed the survey said that they would feel more comfortable reporting a person who they suspected of being impaired by drugs and/or alcohol if the Council's testing policy was based on education and assistance and disciplinary action is only taken in extreme cases of repeated breaches of the policy.

The survey found 45 employees of 760 or so confirmed that they had observed other employees who they thought "may have been affected by alcohol and/or other drugs" but 60% of these didn’t advise a manager or supervisor. And while 40 employees observed someone consume alcohol and/or other drugs, only five advised management. Unfortunately the survey did not answer the question of the quantity of the consumption of the alcohol.

And in an indication that everyone was pretty much over all the do-gooders who want to educate them about lifestyle choices, only 12% didn't think there was enough awareness of the effect of alcohol and other drugs at work and 14% didn't think there was sufficient awareness of the effects of misuse of alcohol and other drugs. The overwhelming majority are well and truly over it.

And,

  • 32% thought the testing of employees not showing signs of impairment, or who have not been involved in an incident was a distraction from properly managing risk at work,
     
  • 27% thought it a misuse of authority,
     
  • 38% thought it a waste of time that could be better spent on targeting risk,
     
  • 35.4% thought it was a distraction from getting the job done,
     
  • 30.7% thought it was an invasion of employee’s privacy and
     
  • 31.6% thought it created a potential risk of continued employment for a good performing employee.

Let's get over it. This prurient interest in what people are doing which is not evident in the way they carry themselves at work is a waste of everyone's time. Random testing is fine if an employee has already tested positive but to lineup innocent employees, simply getting on with the job, and putting them through the indignity of a test based on suspicion that they’re hiding something is not good public policy.

There can be no greater assault upon the fundamental legal principle of the presumption of innocence, than the random testing of people at work who are doing nothing but getting on with the job and showing no signs of anything unusual.

And to top it all off, 94% of those who completed the survey said that having random testing operating at the Council did not interfere with their lifestyle. A disappointing result for those who might want to argue there was a deterrent effect.

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