By Vaughan Granier

Drugs, alcohol, and other substance abuse in the workplace can impair an employee’s ability to work and pose a significant risk to themselves and others. Under New Zealand’s Health and Safety at Work Act 2015 (the Act), both employers and employees have a duty to ensure that the workplace is safe; impairment by drugs or alcohol presents a hazard that you must identify and control.

As workplace drug and alcohol tests are invasive and sometimes expensive, employers should exercise caution when undertaking this procedure. While your employees must comply with reasonable health and safety requests, you risk damaging your relationship with the employee and breaching employment rights if you test for alcohol and drugs inappropriately.

When can I test my employees for drugs?

Employees have a health and safety obligation to perform their work safely and follow all reasonable legal requests from their employer. Your employee may breach their obligations under the Act if they take drugs or are under the influence of alcohol on the job. Generally, you may only require employees and other workers to submit to alcohol or drugs tests if this is a condition of their appointment as stipulated within their employment agreement or a workplace policy.

Whether or not it’s reasonable for you to require an employee to take a drug test depends on a variety of different factors. It may be fair for you to ask an employee to undertake a test if there’s a genuine risk that the employee’s actions (or inactions) could cause harm to themselves or someone else. For example, if the worker in question is responsible for driving vehicles, working at height, or operating heavy and dangerous equipment. Work situations where a mistake could result in serious harm (like when aircraft engineers are making pre-flight checks or doctors are operating on a patient) can also be risky enough to require routine drug testing.

Office workers are not exempt from being drug tested despite the lower risk associated with their office environment and responsibilities. However, we emphasise that you must have a genuine health and safety risk underlying your request for an alcohol or drug test.

When deciding whether to test an employee, you need to balance health and safety with respect for privacy: a drug test may be a tool to protect the well-being of others, but it can also result in an unreasonable intrusion into the life of employees.

When weighing up these two factors, always be mindful that you can’t control what an employee does in their own time. You may only take disciplinary action against an employee if the illicit drugs they take in their personal time presents a health or safety risk while they’re at work.

Drug and alcohol testing policies

It can be challenging to test for alcohol or drugs if your employment agreements don’t state this as a condition. I recommend including a clause outlining your company’s expectations around illicit substances in the workplace within your contracts.

A detailed company policy is also a helpful tool you can use to establish standards of behaviour and clear expectations around drugs, alcohol, and work. While every business is different, a drug and alcohol policy should specify the circumstances in which testing may occur, including when, why and how you’ll conduct the test and whether it will be random, following an incident, or upon suspicion.

Managing a positive drug test result

Your policy should clearly outline how your company will manage a positive test result. Any process that you follow in this situation must be fair, reasonable and should include speaking with the employee in question if their sample indicates drug and alcohol use. To eliminate the possibility of a false-positive, you could require a retest.

You may want to offer a support mechanism to assist employees through this procedure, such as rehabilitation or counselling. Remember, a positive test doesn’t immediately indicate that your employee’s performance was impaired while at work.

Communicating to employees

It’s always important to make sure your employees are aware of the policies which apply to them; this includes your Drug and Alcohol Policy. Whether you’re developing your policy for the first time, or you’ve made some recent amendments, you should have a consistent process for sharing the current version with your staff. It’s essential that every employee also confirms they’ve read and understood the policy and that you record this confirmation against their file. Proof of acknowledgement is vital for proving that an employee is aware of a policy’s existence and therefore bound by it.  HRA Cloud automates this process whenever you share policies using the handy employee self-service (eSS) messaging tool.

If you need advice on managing alcohol or drug risks at work or you’re looking for a Health and Safety solution that protects your people and your business, HR Assured can help! We offer a range of Health and Safety services including, software, advice, audits, and protection.

If you’re an HR Assured client, contact our 24/7 Telephone Advisory Service.

Not an HR Assured client and need some advice? The team at HR Assured can support your business on a range of workplace matters. Contact us today to arrange a confidential, no-obligation chat.

Vaughan Granier is the National Workplace Relations Manager for HR Assured NZ. He has over 24 years of experience in international human resources, health and safety, and workplace relations management. With over 10 years working in New Zealand and Australian companies, he provides in-depth support to leadership teams across HR, Health and Safety, and employee management.