Is the rise in workplace drug testing a good thing?

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More drug testing of individuals in the workplace must be a good thing, right?  I’m not so sure…


Several of the major drug testing companies have reporting a large increase in the amount of workplace drug testing. According to an article ‘Workplace drug testing ‘on the rise’, say providers‘ published on the BBC website last week, four labs have seen an increase of between 40 and 470% over the past four years.

According to the article the adoption by many companies of a drugs-testing policy is “mainly due to insurance purposes”.  I can see this in a potentially hazardous environment but is that true for a ‘desk jockey’? Is that just another equivalent of ‘health and safety said so’?

Safety critical

I can completely understand and approve of the tests being carried out in circumstances were personal and public safety are concerned.  I don’t want my train driver to be using drugs whilst driving, for example.  Someone using heavy machinery is well advised to have a clear head. These companies are right to test employees.  I had an example of a post mortem case involving the logging industry in New Zealand where a chainsaw operator made an error and killed himself and endangered several others.  We found he had recently used cannabis (within the last hour or two). This would likely have impaired judgement in some way and contributed to the lapse in concentration.

On the flip side a friend if mine worked for a large rail operator, on their booking helpline. They were nowhere near trains or passengers yet were drug tested regularly. The company’s rationale for this was that as the train operators where tested all staff should be. I struggle to agree with this as I am sure they do not have unlimited resources, meaning the tests should be targeting where they have the most effect.

Infringing on personal life?

One of the arguments against drug testing employees is the question “do my workplace have a right to control what I do in private?”. You can have a few pints of beer/glasses of wine every night in most industries without fear of reprisals.

There are however quite a few drugs where the metabolites may well be detectable the day or even several days later. There is no real way to know how long since the drug was last used, so it could have been during work or early the previous evening with the physical effects well worn off. Cannabis does cause an issue due to the potential of being detected several weeks after last use. There are not too many issues with the science, but interpretation can be one. The article mentions the defence of eating poppy seeds, which is well known to cause morphing positives.

Another question is should work police your behaviour? Many drugs of abuse are illegal, but unless this has a critical impact on your job (I’m thinking Police for example..) should you employer be policing your behaviour. What about legal drugs like new psychoactive substances (‘legal highs’)? Physically these may have as much as an effect on you as illegal drugs.

Good management practice?

Is the use of drug testing a good managerial tool? I would hope that it is not being used as a blunt tool in these companies. If someone’s work is poor then perhaps there are other metrics that should be used before drug testing. I would suggest in some work places the use of drug tests could lead to unhappy staff feeling ‘got at’ or not trusted.


Just a few thoughts there, but what do others think? Is it right to drug test workers and in what circumstances? Thanks for reading.


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About Dr Tom Bassindale

Dr Tom Bassindale is a forensic scientist, and the founder of We Are Forensic. He is currently the subject lead for chemistry and forensic science at Sheffield Hallam University. He's managed hundreds of forensic toxicology cases, and is an experienced court witness. He has specialist expertise in forensic toxicology and drug testing in sport. And yes... he watches CSI.