Is workplace drugs and alcohol testing here to stay?

2 May 2019 By Emma Horner

Emma Horner outlines some best practice for employers looking to start testing their employees

Employers have a legal duty to take reasonable care for the safety of their employees and a statutory duty to ensure the health, safety and welfare of employees.

Drug use amongst 16-59-year olds has remained relatively constant at about 9 per cent of the population in England and Wales since 2007, but this figure rises sharply to 19.8 per cent in the 16-24-year old age group in 2018, according to statistics from Public Health England. 

In parallel to this, there has been an increase year on year in the number of employers looking to implement drugs and alcohol testing in the UK workplace, with the European Pharmaceutical Review forecasting that the testing industry will rise to £231 million in 2019 from £167 million in 2017. 

Testing procedures

There are a wide variety of testing procedures including urinalysis, oral (swab) and hair sampling. The abundance of options can seem bewildering to employers and the testing process can be difficult and embarrassing for employees. Employers should ensure that they implement the most appropriate and unobtrusive testing method possible.

Urinalysis can be humiliating, particularly for female employees, and tests for lifestyle rather than impairment. As certain substances can remain in urine or hair for much longer periods than in the mouth, sometimes up to a number of weeks, urinalysis or hair sampling may result in a non-negative test even though the employee may not be impaired at the time of testing.

Oral testing is much more dignified and only tests for impairment at the time of testing.

Who should be responsible for testing?

I believe that responsibility for testing programmes should lie jointly with HR and Health Safety and they should work together to communicate one message. Human Resource professionals have the ability to implement drugs and alcohol testing alongside a wellbeing strategy with a focus on rehabilitation for any employees who are suffering from problems with drugs and alcohol.

While not all employers are able to refer employees to internal Occupational Health departments, the NHS and Talk to Frank can help employers to find local assistance. 

Employers should make it clear to their employees why they are implementing a substance misuse policy and the resulting impact should an employee test non-negative for substance misuse. Best practice would be to carry out an employee roadshow to fully explain the reasons behind implementing a substance misuse policy which offers employees an opportunity to ask any questions.

I would also advise that employers offer an amnesty period so employees are able to approach either their line manager or HR with any concerns they might have about possible addiction or medication that may trigger a non-negative result during testing. 

Emerging Trends

There has been an increasing number of part-time athletes in various sports taking myriad substances to minimise muscle fatigue or improve performance. Many of these substances have not been tested or approved by governing bodies and some have been shown to contain high enough levels of THC (cannabis) as to test non-negative in a drugs test.

Employers should encourage their employees to only take substances approved by Informed Sport to ensure they will not unknowingly test non-negative during a workplace drugs test.

Employers must also review their policies on a regular basis to keep up-to-date with any new and emerging drugs or changes in the law. In April 2019, two prescription drugs were reclassified as Class C drugs – Pregabalin and Gabapentin. These would not show on traditional screening methods used by an employer or outsourced screening service but would show on a confirmatory (back to lab) test.

Employers should keep up to date with new and emerging drug trends and reclassification of prescription drugs in order to keep their substance misuse policies current and fit for purpose. 

Drugs and alcohol testing will increase within the UK workplace and it is advised that employers ready themselves and their workforces for the impact this may have on their business and personal lives.

Emma Horner is HR & recruitment director at OdiliaClark

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