Workplace screening and testing is a complicated issue involving a long list of legal, moral, ethical and safety concerns. Making matters worse is the fact that screening and testing policies are difficult to implement without creating some amount of backlash from workers. However, the combination of legal liability and worker safety regulations force employers in the 21st century to seriously consider implementing screening programmes.

A failure to implement screening and testing according to the law could land a company in trouble with the Government. On the other hand, neglecting drug and alcohol testing altogether could result in civil litigation or possible prosecution in the event of a serious incident. Unfortunately, this is an issue with no clear and easy answers.

Legal Responsibilities

To say employers are in a delicate position when it comes to workplace screening and testing is to state the obvious. On the one hand, the law requires employers to take every reasonable step necessary to ensure the safety and well-being of every worker, customer, and visitor. On the other hand, the law is very strict about privacy and consent.

Beginning with consent, employers must get the consent of workers prior to every workplace drug test. That consent must be received in writing. Any samples obtained without consent are neither legal nor defensible. Furthermore, any medical professional gathering samples or administering workplace testing programmes must inform the individual worker regarding the purpose behind it. Workers have the right to know if testing is for clinical or discovery purposes.

Where privacy is concerned, the law requires complete confidentiality. Employers and clinicians are required to safeguard worker information, including of the results of any test administered. The data collected is only to be used for the purposes outlined in the company screening and testing policies.

Ethical and Moral Questions

The law is very clear about how workplace screening and testing is to be implemented and carried out. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said where ethical and moral questions are concerned. The law does not address such questions for obvious reasons. Therefore, it is up to employers and their workers to figure out what works best for them.

As an example, a group of workers may believe that regular drug testing amounts to an unnecessary and unethical invasion of privacy. They may choose to not comply as a result. Does the employer takes action against such employees? And if so, would they have legal grounds to make their case?

Another example would be that of a worker whose religious beliefs prohibited him or her from participating in testing during certain times of the year. Because such individuals would find testing morally reprehensible, the employer would have to find a way to achieve the desired level of testing without forcing workers to compromise moral convictions. As you can see, the moral and ethical issues surrounding workplace drug testing are tricky.

Practical Issues

Before a company can implement a drug screening and testing programme, it must be created as part of a larger policy dealing with workplace drug and alcohol use. Drawing up specific guidelines for screening and testing brings up a multitude of practical issues that need to be dealt with. Among them are the specific reasons a company might cite for implementing a testing programme. Possible reasons include:

  • employee recruitment – hiring new talent while minimising risk
  • for cause – in response to a known incident or accident
  • due cause – in response to suspicions that workers may be under the influence
  • random testing – as a means of prevention
  • group testing – as a means of monitoring employee activity outside of the workplace.

Also of practical importance is whom a company uses to perform testing procedures. Any service provider being considered should be a member of the UK Workplace Drug Testing Forum, a participant of the UK National Quality Assurance Scheme, and ISO 17025 accredited. Employers should be especially wary of service providers who seem to be offering inflated claims of how effective their screening programmes are. No amount of workplace drug screening will prevent all problems.

Lastly, a properly implemented drug-screening programme will include a chain of custody for all samples taken. This is true regardless of whether testing is conducted through urine, hair, or oral fluids. The chain of custody protects samples from contamination and makes them more easily defensible in cases where action is taken against workers.

Testing and Screening Summary

Workplace drug testing and screening is part of the modern work environment. Companies that choose to implement programmes must do so in the knowledge that they have both legal and ethical responsibilities toward their workers. At the same time, they must balance worker needs with the need to protect the integrity and productivity of their businesses.

Because of the complex nature of workplace drug testing, it is imperative that employers seek proper legal and medical advice when developing appropriate policies. Great care should be taken to make sure established policies are not only effective, but also in compliance with the law. Otherwise, an employer could find workplace drug testing more troublesome than it is worth.


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