It's official, urine testing is unacceptable

The Local Government and Shires Association, the United Services Union, the Local Government Engineers Association and depa have all agreed that any drug testing in local government should be done by saliva testing and not urine testing. This fundamental agreement underpins the finalisation of the industry's Alcohol and Other Drugs Policy and Procedure in the Industrial Relations Commission yesterday.

The Agreement recognises that saliva testing is both more effective in detecting impairment at the time of the test, more reliable in not producing false positives from legitimate medication and less intrusive into the privacy of employees because it detects impairment at the time of the test and not something that someone might have done two weeks ago.

For more than two years the employer organisations and unions have argued about, developed, trialled, argued again and finally resolved an agreed approach across the industry for those councils interested in introducing alcohol and other drugs policies. It has been at times acrimonious, threatening and uncooperative but it is now over and a good policy base has been created. And our role holding out against agreement between the employers and the USU supporting random testing and some other uncomfortable things has meant the development of a better policy.

Even the USU recognises this, with their representative in this process Steven Hughes, Manager of the Northern Division acknowledging "and in finalising this, the constructive amendments made by Robbo and Martin that allowed consensus to be reached." High praise indeed.

The agreed Policy sees our abandonment of opposition to random testing but only under agreed conditions. During the trial of the Industry Guidelines, the LGSA and the USU reached agreement (without discussion with either depa or the LGEA) that they wanted to see random testing across the industry. It would have been nice for the USU to have sat down with the other unions to tell us that they had abandoned our agreed position of quarantining random testing to those who had already tested positive, but they didn't.

But, like it or not, the LGSA and the USU wanted it and employees should arrive at work in a condition suitable for satisfying a random test anyway. It would have been nice for everyone to recognise that because the random testing regime during the trial didn't produce one positive test, we can properly conclude six months of random testing showed that there was nothing to detect and that the anti-drug zealots are the ones that need medication but no one wanted to do that either. 

 At least in the agreed Policy and Procedures we were able to have everyone recognise that there was no agreement about what the evidence showed during the trial. That will stop the misrepresenters and the boasters.  This is a policy that should have been developed with less reliance on gossip, projection and supposition and more on evidence. The evidence leads to the inescapable inescapable conclusion that there was no discernible pattern on things like sick leave, access to EAPs, workplace accidents and incidents etc to support any argument that there was a deterrent.

But while our relationship with the LGSA continues to decline and it would have been preferable for the unions to be a little bit more cooperative, there have been some positives for us in this exercise and here are the ten big ones:

  1. If there is to be testing, it MUST be saliva testing.
  2. A policy will be developed at each Council from the industry policy, through the consultative committee, where the various testing regimes and options will be considered. This is something that the employers and the HR managers didn't want specified and where we couldn't get the LGSA to agree that the Consultative Committee "support" any policy.
  3. Prescription medication does not need to be declared before any test. This protects employees’ privacy because unrelated medication which can’t affect a test result now needn’t be declared.
  4. There is a recognition that there is no agreement of any evidence from the trial which means that those who argued that there was a deterrent effect were unable to establish this from proper evidence.
  5. We pulled the issue out of the clutches of the HR Group in the Hunter and restored it, to where it should have always remained, as something developed between the employer organisations and unions.
  6. We saw the Hunter Councils refusing to supply information to allow proper assessment of the trial and the costs and continuing to refuse that even when the Commission made an informal recommendation that they do so.
  7. We got a direction from Haylen J in the Industrial Relations Commission that the trial councils furnish evidence about costs, workplace injury figures, access to EAP, sick leave figures etc and once the information was provided, the LGSA and USU didn't press that there was evidence of a deterrent effect.
  8. The provision of this evidence, as a result of the recommendation from the Commission, revealed that the reasons why this shouldn't be provided in a stupid letter from Port Stephens GM Peter Gesling, were nonsense.
  9. The provision of this evidence, when it had been argued that this was "confidential", and the alleged confidential nature of the information wasn't pressed or protected when the evidence was provided, means that the Hunter Councils would say anything to hide the truth.
  10. We will never again have to run an individual dispute about the principles contained within the Policy.

In 2006 we initiated discussions with the LGSA and the other unions when we found that Kempsey had introduced random testing without telling anyone. We subsequently ran disputes with Hornsby, Sutherland and Wollongong about random testing and what is the appropriate PCA in breathalyser testing, and now, with these agreed principles, we won't have to do that anymore. It will mean that councils like Coffs Harbour, which think that they know better and that everyone should comply with the PCA of .02, will need to rethink because the Policy relies upon the RTA proscriptions.

And, it will be very hard now for those councils with a fetish for urine testing to not fall in line with the industry policy and procedures. Upper Hunter and Bogan will have to think again.

While the agreement has been reached, we asked the Commission to stand over the two disputes until October, just to see how the industry responded. As the purpose of both those disputes was to ensure that crazy people were kept under control, we need to make sure that is still happening. And, in a dazzling and disoriented in response, the LGSA didn't oppose this. The first thing we've ever asked for in this dispute that they agreed to without a fight.

As these policies are now obliged to be developed through the Consultative Committee, we will provide a document for our representatives on those Committees with the sorts of issues that should be debated. Like what did it cost the Councils in the trial (because some testing options are cheaper than others), what testing methods better target risk and why it’s a copout to introduce random testing hoping it picks up notorious employees with known alcohol and drug problems because that means councils ignore an acknowledged occupational health and safety risk.

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