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INDUSTRY FOCUS

Getting Needle at Work

Rising substance abuse in the workplace prompts increase in UK testing market and need for “amnesties”.
By John Wilson, Executive Editor

The phrase “getting needle at work” used to be a form of slang shorthand for corporate or colleague bullying by managers or peers, but today it also carries a serious connotation in the form of illicit drug taking.

This is not necessarily the actual consumption of illegal substances in the workplace—although many retailers have engaged the services of specialist drug-detecting dogs to identify lockers where colleagues are hiding their stashes—but a worrying trend towards more people being under the influence of drugs and alcohol when they turn up to work.

According to figures from Alcohol Concern, 70 per cent of drug users are in full-time employment where more than 11 million days are lost each year to misuse-related absenteeism or presenteeism—the term used to describe people who are at work, but their performance is lowered by being incapacitated, which cost UK public limited companies £2 billion in lost productivity last year.

The jailing of British Airways pilot Julian Monaghan in June, after he was found to have more than four times the permitted alcohol limit in his blood stream when he arrived at work, supported the claim in part. In May this year, Home Office Minister Ben Wallace described the UK as “Europe’s biggest consumer of cocaine,” a trend that is fuelling growing levels of violence and anti-social behaviour, which has major implications for UK companies.

A Growing Drugs Culture

This trend has been partly driven by a market flooded with cheap drugs, not to mention the change in classification of previously legal highs, which has created a new demand on the black market. In parts of the UK, mainly the north-west, easy access to formerly legal highs, including Spice, have turned parts of Liverpool and Manchester into no-go zones with zombie-like individuals sleeping rough and aggressively begging in city centres.

Earlier this year Greater Manchester Police (GMP) were called to almost sixty Spice-related incidents in the city centre over a single weekend. In twenty-three of these incidents, an ambulance had to be dispatched to the scene. Most of the incidents were around the Piccadilly Gardens area of the city—a busy shopping centre where retailers have struggled to clear doorways of rough sleepers and where staff fear for their safety. The problem has become so bad that the Manchester Evening News referred to the shopping and transport hub as a “dystopian nightmare” in its front-page editorial.

Charity workers say the drug has proven popular among rough sleepers because it is cheap—£5 for half a gram—and strong, allowing them to “self-medicate” and forget the difficulties in their lives. A survey conducted by the charity Homeless Link last year found that more than 90 per cent of rough sleepers in Manchester had tried Spice.

“When you first start using, you only need the equivalent of a pinhead of Spice, and you can get thirty to forty joints out of a gram,” said Robert Ralphs, PhD, a senior lecturer in criminology at Manchester Metropolitan University.  “But people then build up tolerance and end up smoking six, seven, eight grams a day—they can find themselves spending £40 to £50 a day on it.”

The UK’s overcrowded prisons are also under increased pressure from drug epidemics as wardens struggle to gain control in some jails. Of 805 prisoners surveyed in nine jails, a third had used Spice in the previous month. The majority of survey participants estimated between half and nearly all prisoners had used Spice in prison. The peer-led inquiry, conducted by ex-offenders’ organisation User Voice, also found the growing popularity of Spice had contributed to an increase in violence, bullying, mental and physical ill health, and even death.

“Spice has taken over the drugs culture in prison,” said a respondent. “It’s reached epidemic levels.”

The survey found that the levels of Spice in jail were three times higher than what had been reported to HM Inspectorate of Prisons the previous year.

Workplace Impact

Studies of substance abuse in the workplace are at best old and at worst almost non-existent. In the early noughties, a series of European studies were carried out around cultural approaches to alcohol and drugs misuse in the workplace. According to a Euro Barometer research project on EU citizens’ attitudes towards alcohol, three-quarters of EU citizens (76%) consumed alcoholic beverages in the past twelve months, while almost a quarter (24%) claimed to have abstained. The results also showed that around half of alcohol consumers (49%) say they drink between one and three times a week; most EU alcohol consumers (69%) usually have two drinks or fewer in each session, whereas 10 per cent claim to usually have five drinks or more. The consumption of alcoholic beverages is higher among men and middle- to older-aged people, a demographic many surveys show tend to drink more. There are also important differences between member states.

According to the research, the most prolific drinkers in Europe were the Irish, 26 per cent of whom consumed more than three drinks per day. The British were close behind with 24 per cent. The Greeks and Bulgarians were more restrained recording only 2 per cent. More than 25 per cent of Portuguese workers actually drank at work, while 38 per cent of Slovenians reported that they had seen work colleagues performing their work tasks under the influence of alcohol. In the Netherlands, 21 per cent of workers drank “excessively” with 5 per cent admitting to being addicted to alcohol.

Many of these figures relate to cultural approaches to alcohol, which is a highly revered “escape” across the world, not to mention 100 per cent legal. It is a different matter when it comes to drugs, which are, conversely, almost universally illegal in most societies, with the possible exception of the Netherlands where there is a more liberal approach to cannabis, for example.

The Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 makes it an offence to produce, supply, or possess controlled drugs. This is the UK’s guiding drugs-related legislation. But, general legality aside, concern over substance abuse and its extremes is not necessarily a moral judgement on the employees’ recreational habits outside of the workplace, but more about his or her competence to do the job safely and without endangering others under the duty of care bestowed upon the UK by the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974.

Under the act it is an offence under section two for an employer not to provide a general duty of care to the workforce. There are also regulatory guidelines under the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 where employers have to be able to assess the risks to the health and safety of their workforce. Under both pieces of guidance, knowing that there was a culture of drink or drug abuse in the workplace and doing nothing about it would constitute a breach of that duty and open the organisation up to prosecution.

The Transport and Works Act 1992 makes it an offence to use drugs and alcohol on the railways and tramways, and the Road Traffic Act 1988 makes it an offence to drive under the influence. Employers have therefore gone to some trouble to put in place detailed drink and drug policies to maintain that duty for obvious reasons. Anyone operating machinery or transportation, including forklift trucks, in a warehouse under the influence would be a danger not only to themselves but also to colleagues.

Accidents or fatalities not only would be catastrophic for those involved but also could invoke the corporate manslaughter legislation where the Health and Safety Executive would be deployed to carry out a root and branch analysis of a company’s policies and procedures as they related to substance abuse. The fines are prohibitive, and directors can face jail sentences, but there is also the wider brand damage involved and the corporate reputational damage that would potentially last longer than any bad hangover.

In the UK, the Trade Union Congress (TUC) used to hold a more ambivalent approach to drugs testing, which in 2010 implied that it was not too much of a corporate issue. At that time, it wrote rather dismissively, “Despite claims from drugs-testing companies, there is no real evidence that drug-testing is becoming commonplace in British workplaces. It is mainly used, often with union agreement, in safety critical areas such as transport and energy generation or after an incident. There is also increased usage in the construction industry. However, generally where wide-scale drug testing has been considered, it has been rejected either because of cost, union objections, or doubts over the effectiveness. There is nevertheless a very aggressive marketing campaign by a number of US-based drugs-testing companies, and many union representatives are going to find themselves confronted with proposals for drug-testing in the workplace.”

Today, the TUC’s position has softened somewhat, although there was still hostility to such testing: “Workplace drug and alcohol testing is becoming more common, but it’s very controversial and raises questions about human rights and data protection. If you’re tested at work, your employer must be open about what they’re doing and why. Drug or alcohol testing needs a good reason—such as the safety-critical nature of someone’s job. Your employer should also make it clear what substances you’re being tested for and get written consent before every test. They should use the least intrusive test possible. And your medical records must be kept confidential. Testing is not a substitute for good drug and alcohol policies, developed in consultation with staff. If you’re worried about your employer’s testing policy, go to your union rep. If you’re not already a union member, you should join and encourage colleagues to do the same. The more union members there are in a workplace, the stronger the union’s position will be when it comes to negotiating improvements to the conditions where you work.”

More conciliatory is the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), which has produced a document, Drugs Misuse At Work, in which it highlights typical telltale signs as well as advising employers on how to approach the issue from a policy point of view. This involves a programme of training for all employees, training for managers and supervisors to recognise the signs of misuse and what action to take in instances of suspicion, and an empathetic approach to dealing with issues including the requirement for discretion and confidentiality to encourage people with drug-related problems to come forward to talk about their issues. It also includes tips on giving staff time off to seek medical help through their GP or specialist drugs agency, which would be treated as normal sick leave. The advice even looks at if the employee will not admit a problem and how to navigate the disciplinary route if all other methods fail. Screening is seen as one of the solutions, but this must always be supplemented by professional assessment.

Establishing Testing and Amnesties

Many companies engage occupational health teams or consultants who are experts in this field, but there are organisations that are specialists in the field of drug testing. One global provider of drug testing services predicts that workplace drink and drugs “amnesties” are likely to become routine because of UK companies’ growing substance abuse culture.

Eurofins Workplace Drug Testing says in order to keep staff safe and allay fears of accidents, a growing number of employers across a wider range of sectors are proactively implementing drug and alcohol testing policies—usually preceded by an amnesty period, allowing staff with dependencies time to address their problem ahead of being screened for the presence of drugs or alcohol.

Gary McCutcheon, commercial manager for workplace drug testing at Eurofins, said, “The UK has developed a drug-abuse problem, but people assume it is all recreational. However, drug taking does not start at 5 p.m. on Friday. The workplace is a major part of a society where drugs are a daily reality.”

The company, which has secure testing labs all over the country, was inundated by more than 200 company enquiries—many from safety-critical industries—for its new workplace drugs testing at the Safety & Health Expo at ExCeL London in June. The problem is such that the market for workplace drugs and alcohol testing will rise from £167 million today to £231 million by 2019—a more than 40 per cent increase—as businesses look to protect staff and brand reputations.

Cocaine and cannabis are the most common drugs detected in the workplace, but there is a growing trend towards abuse of prescription medication, NPS (novel-psychoactive substances) or so-called “legal highs,” and steroids, which according to experts can trigger aggression.

Workplace drugs and alcohol testing is now common across a wide range of sectors including the construction industry where, due to the high-risk operational environment, extreme care has to be taken in all areas of work. Workplace drugs and alcohol testing is also widely used in many other sectors including maritime, aviation, manufacturing, food processing, and logistics.

However, McCutcheon said the harmful implications of letting drug and alcohol abuse go unchallenged were such that a wider selection of businesses were now opting to implement testing policies or enhance existing measures. “Gone are the days when employers could turn a blind eye to drug and alcohol abuse,” he said. “The drivers for this are more rigorous regulation, including the Corporate Manslaughter Act, and a greater emphasis on health and safety in the workplace.”

Testing regimes are based upon urine, saliva, and even hair samples and can detect what has been taken and when over a three-month period. As they are so accurate, McCutcheon predicted more and more firms will have to introduce amnesties ahead of mandatory workforce testing.

“It will be normal for businesses to announce amnesties at least two months ahead of drugs testing being introduced,” said McCutcheon. “This will allow people to discreetly raise the issue with their employers, particularly if they have addictions to prescription or recreational drugs. It is a better and more pre-emptive way of dealing with the issue than being caught and traumatised by the accuracy of the test.”

Amnesties allow for employees to raise the issues of the dependencies with an employer, but workers need to understand the broader picture behind why a business has had to introduce drugs testing in the first place.
“You can’t have a situation where a business simply says, ‘We’re going to introduce drug testing, without any consultation,’” said Robbie Spencer, the managing director of Norwich-based Develop From Within, a specialist employment training organisation.

Spencer, who has spent forty years in the business after establishing the drug and rehabilitation service for Her Majesty’s Prison Service, said, “We believe that in order for the policy to achieve its aims, managers and staff should be aware of the issues surrounding drugs and alcohol in the workplace, how it affects them and their colleagues, and the repercussions of their actions on issues such as health and safety and litigation. The purpose of our training is to provide employees with knowledge of the effects and costs of drugs and alcohol misuse in the workplace and beyond.

Apart from covering the types and effects of legal and illegal substances and the health and safety implications, one of the major education pieces delivered by the scene-setting, half-day training sessions was alcohol decay rates—how long it remains in the body after consumption—for which there was an interactive exercise for course delegates.

“This provides the context for employees. If they understand the consequences of taking drugs and alcohol, they can make more informed decisions as to whether they continue to do so or not. They will also understand that all companies want to do is operate a safe working environment. The decay rate exercise shows how long the substance remains in the body. Delegates who take heed of this information are more likely to keep their jobs.”

Drug and alcohol abuse in the workplace may soon have nowhere to hide as businesses look to protect themselves and their staff under their duty of care requirements. Amnesties are a way of navigating this complex issue, especially in the febrile atmosphere of greater awareness around mental health and well-being. Issues around job security and the so-called gig economy—where people are employed but come under what the Prime Minister tagged as the JAM (just about managing) generation—could be factors in the greater tendency towards self-medication. But for a business community that is keen to keep its reputation clean and sober, there is a constant vigil to be kept to prevent absenteeism, presenteeism, and needle at work.   

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