To Test or Not to Test: Drug and Alcohol Policies in the Retail Workplace

Chris Beasley | Managing Director | Safety Navigator

According to Gouldson Legal, people who are in the workforce are more likely in the last 12 months to have consumed drugs or alcohol than those who don't work.

And, according to Comcare, drugs and alcohol use by individuals is the cause of up to 15 per cent of workplace incidents leading to injury worldwide.

With those statistics, it seems a little wonder that many organisations choose to implement robust drug and alcohol policies, and even regular drug and alcohol testing programs in workplaces.

But just how effective are those policies, and how practical is it to run testing programs for Australian and New Zealand Franchise businesses?

Risks to individuals associated with drugs and alcohol in the workplace

There are, of course, many risks associated with individuals under the influence of drugs or alcohol in the workplace, including:

  • Loss of employment, due to employees being terminated or the worker being absent
  • Mental Health affects, e.g. long or short-term depression
  • Potentials for workplace violence
  • Adverse effects on the ongoing health of a worker

Risks to franchise businesses and the franchisee

There are also several risks to the franchise business and its owner/s as they relate to drugs and alcohol, including: 

  • Potential for lower morale amongst workers which may lead to absences, lower productivity 
  • Lost productivity due to the absences of workers and their potential inability to focus on the job while under the effect of drugs or alcohol 
  • Adverse impact on the workforce where absences and a lack of focus can lead to workplace incidents

Cost of policies and testing programs vs the cost of not implementing 

The Alcohol and Drug Foundation estimate that the cost in lost productivity alone to Australian workplaces related to drug and alcohol use is $6 billion per year.

The purchase price of a mid-range breathalyser to measure alcohol levels present in workers is around the $400 mark, while a saliva-based drug test conducted at the workplace takes approximately 15 - 25 minutes per test to complete. In most major cities, the cost of using an external provider to complete both alcohol and drug testing on-site is approximately $85 - $120 per worker, and with typically a minimum number often required. 

And add to that the cost of creating robust workplace policies around drugs and alcohol, along with the education required to get a clear cut through on the message, and some small franchised business owners might view implementing a strategy as a costly (ongoing) undertaking.

But if a Franchise business has more than 10 workers, you could assume based on statistics that there is a 1.5 in ten chance of drugs or alcohol causing a serious workplace incident every six years, and every three years for more than 20 workers in the business. 

Assessing risk vs cost

While using cost as an indicator of need in the testing for drugs and alcohol may not be an ideal rationale, in lower-risk industries and especially where those workplaces have few workers, the cost will always be considered.  For example, small franchise business in the non-food based retail sector may deem testing and rigorous drug and alcohol policies as too onerous versus the actual risk of the same, causing a workplace incident.

A thorough risk assessment relating to drugs and alcohol in the workplace should be undertaken, however, and ideally, this assessment would be carried out by the Franchise owners of the business in consultation with the workers to ensure a diversity of opinion.

Risk assessment should always take into consideration the consequences and likelihood of drugs and alcohol to cause and incident versus the actual cost of implementing a program, or indeed; at what level those policies and programs should aim at.

Tips on creating strong drug and alcohol policies in the workplace

So given the risks to both the individual, and the franchise business and its owner/s, let's list some key strategies and implementing policies or programs that aim to reduce those risks:

  • Always undertake a thorough risk assessment of drugs and alcohol in the workplace before creating any policy. The completed risk assessment should guide your business as to the approach required for the development of policy.
     
  • The policy should focus on the positives (e.g. worker safety) rather than the negatives (punishing 'wrongdoers')
     
  • If purchasing equipment, only use that which has been certified to Australian Standard, with clear instructions on use
  • The policy should use simple language and not be overly long so that it will be more easily adapted.
  • Educate all workers on the importance of the drug and alcohol policy and encourage them for feedback both before the policy being created, and ongoing.

The 'Hidden Downside' of testing for drugs and alcohol 

While many would agree that there are numerous positive outcomes associated with screening for drugs and alcohol in the workplace, there is one potential downside in testing, particularly where that testing is a random event.

In some cases, a worker with a 'clean' record both in his or her application to the job role, and relating to no apparent issues with drugs and alcohol in the past, could find themselves 'unlucky' when tested if there is found to be a comparatively high blood alcohol reading, possibly because of consumption the night before the test.

This is especially true in workplaces with a zero-tolerance policy approach to drugs and alcohol, and in these instances, a worker and his or her colleagues may feel that the policy in place is far too strict, which may lead to resentment and lower worker morale — i.e. where employment is terminated for one breach to policy.

Therefore all drug and alcohol policies, especially in smaller franchise businesses in low-risk industry sectors, must be appropriate in every measure.

Getting it right

The balance between a commitment to providing a drug and alcohol-free workplace and the costs and potential downsides in doing the same is delicate. 

To get it right, the workplace needs to undertake a risk assessment which involves worker consultation, then create, then implement a drug and alcohol policy that aligns to the risks.