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Drug and alcohol testing in the workplace

Brittany Brathwaite

Drug and alcohol testing in the workplace

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THE ADVENT of alcohol and drug testing in the workplace has in the past been a contentious topic but in the contemporary work/business environment in Barbados, more private and public sector organizations have seen the need for such.
The business community has become more acutely aware of the impact substance abuse has on public safety as well as the financial impact it has on businesses and industries when productivity is lower as a result.
Employers are becoming increasingly aware of the crucial role they play in securing the safety and health of their employees as well as the public at large. In embracing this role, many have begun implementing drug- and alcohol-testing policies.
Policies of this nature directly address the issue of substance abuse at work, set out how the employer intends to treat instances of substance abuse, and how testing would be carried out.
Organizations have also taken to including clauses in their handbooks and other policy documents outlining their stance on the issue and disciplinary action that could follow substance abuse, which affects employees’ ability to perform and/or endangers their colleagues and/or society.
Preventative measures have been one of the primary tools utilized by employers to tackle the evolving problem.
Most recently, the Barbados Defence Force publicly declared that since the implementation and utilization of their drug- and alcohol-testing policy in 2006, a total of 3 000 employees had been tested, some repeatedly, and 27 were dismissed as illegal substances were found in their systems at the time of testing.  
These policies are being implemented around the world at a rapid rate. Britain’s Commissioner of Police Bernard Hogan-Howe has called for mandatory drug testing at work for millions of professionals in all occupations; in particular teachers, intensive care nurses and transport staff.
It was also noted that in the year 2012, annual productivity loss due to alcohol and drug abuse has been estimated at £100 billion (BDS$295.7 billion).
A few small studies have been carried out attempting to quantify the loss of productivity as a result of substance abuse in Barbados; however, to date we have no knowledge of data that adequately quantifies the costs nationally.
Legislation highlighting the duty of care an employer has for his employees, the Safety And Health At Work Act 2005, has been a great impetus for employers to roll out such policies.
Nonetheless, despite its effectiveness as a prevention measure, drug testing at work brings into question the erosion of civil liberties – none more so than the violation of one’s privacy, which is protected under the Human Rights Act 1988.
There are also possible legal and industrial relations-related issues that could arise, even though there is no legislation speaking directly to the way drugs and illegal substances in the workplace should be handled.
Nevertheless, employers must become informed on how to articulate, write and implement policies that are inherently non-discriminatory.
The Code Of Practice: Management Of Alcohol And Drug-Related Issues in the workplace (1999), published by the International Labour Organization, is a guidance book which, according to the ILO, “presents a variety of multidisciplinary approaches to the prevention, , treatment and rehabilitation of alcohol- and drug-related problems in the workplace.”
The plethora of workplace policies provided in the code are extremely useful for employers. The guidance book is available online at
Businesses considering implementing a policy of this nature should in addition be mindful of the following during the compilation stage:
How robust do the policies and procedures laid out in the document need to be? Be mindful of the nature of work of your staff, in all areas. Question whether it may be necessary to outline that some staff be tested more often than others, for example, drivers and messengers. What the policy will entail is key and framers should aim to be as clear as possible.
All current and potential staff should be made fully aware of the policy and its implications, as with any other policy that forms part of their employment contract.
Be mindful that positive tests have the propensity to stain a person’s character and career, thus only qualified medical practitioners or agencies should do the testing.
Once the system is in place, it will be essential that all parties have confidence in the testing procedure.
The efficacy of such policies have increasingly become undeniable. However, organizations and businesses must remain cognizant of the implications.
Compiling and implementing a drug- and alcohol-testing policy should not be done without the appropriate guidance. Thus, we urge you to contact us at the BEC with any queries on the matter at [email protected]