In the last five years, routine and targeted drug testing has begun to appear in more and more workplaces within the United Kingdom.
Whether performed for safety, insurance, or purely ethical reasons these tests look set to become an enduring feature of British corporate culture. Over 3.5 million tests were performed in 2014 and some biomedical companies saw as much as a 100% rise in demand between 2013 and 2014 alone.
What is Drug Testing?
Drug testing is the practice of testing employees for use of illicit substances within (or shortly before entering) the workplace.
While drug testing at work is (by law) not at all mandatory for British employees, refusing a drug test can often result in disciplinary action for insubordination if the employee agreed to random testing in their contract. It is illegal, however, to test an employee without their full consent.
Likewise, the action(s) taken upon failing a test is often down to the discretion of the employer. This can range from dismissal to referral to counselling and prevention services to the employee simply being asked to change their lifestyle. Legal proceedings may also be initiated against the drug user, depending on the offence.
Drug testing usually benefits the employer. Random drug testing allows the company to keep their workplace safe, legal, and respectable. It also allows for tighter control and remedying of issues connected to corporate welfare, such as low morale and self-esteem. It can also allow drug using applicants to be filtered out during the application or probationary stage or for chronic workplace abusers to be dismissed with reasonable evidence, if the employer deems it necessary.
However, there are limits to this. By law, employees selected for work-related drug testing should be selected by random ballot. An exemption is made in cases where a certain employee has behaved in such a way as to arouse reasonable suspicion of illegal or inappropriate drug use (i.e. accidents, strange behaviour).
Under penalty of law, employees cannot be blanket tested at once for any kind of drug. Nor can they be tested when the test is not absolutely relevant to ensuring proper conduct and safe performance in their job.
Who Performs the Tests?
The majority of British workplace drug tests are handled externally by four consultant biomedical companies, Alere, Synergy Health, LGC Group, and Bioclinics.
These companies will analyse a given set of samples in their specialist laboratories for trace indicators of popular recreational and mood enhancing drugs. Testing typically targets well known drugs such as cannabis, ketamine, amphetamines, steroids, or cocaine.
Class A and B drugs are often focused upon in the United Kingdom. However, testing methods do exist for drugs the British government considers less offensive or even legal (in some contexts) that might still be inappropriate for a working environment. Testing for the use of psychoactive “legal highs” has become more commonplace as use of the substances has risen, for example.
These tests are conducted by searching for a positive sample of the active ingredient contained in each separate drug. This typically requires a bodily sample.
How the Test Samples are Collected
There are several different methods for collecting samples that are regularly used.
Swab (or cartridge) testing is one of the most popular and least intrusive ways of gathering a sample. Using the equipment is now considered integral to standard practice for the police. This method takes a clean saliva sample for chemical analysis by swabbing the mouth with fabric, usually after a waiting period to avoid contamination.
Urine analysis is similarly straightforward. A container of urine is provided by the employee and then analysed for chemical composition. If a substance has recently entered the bloodstream, then trace amounts are carried through into the sample for detection through complex chemical and test strip analysis.
The downside to this is that it is often cumbersome, intrusive, and takes more time to complete than swabbing. In addition, it only provides a very limited history of the patient’s drug use. Blood testing via needle extraction is extremely similar in nature, if unpopular for drug testing alone due to the added effort and special equipment required to perform it properly.
Several other methods that focus more on forensic methodology familiar to toxicologists might also be used. Hair analysis, such as a Lextox Hair Strand Drug Test in particular can give a much more detailed history of substance abuse across a number of months. This is done by examining the strand microscopically to see where it has been indented or stunted by trace amounts of a drug.
Who Uses Drug Testing in the United Kingdom?
Prescribed random drug testing is used in both the private and public sector. It is commonly deployed within government run offices, high-risk jobs, safety-critical jobs, and high-prestige jobs (such as teaching or nursing).
It is typically used much more frequently in high-wealth or large companies, simply due to the costs and logistics involved with running drug testing schemes. Haulage firms, heavy manufacturing, operating theatres, and the civil services are typical clients for the biomedical companies listed above.
Middle-class or high pressure roles are sometimes targeted specifically by employers. This is usually due to the perceived relative popularity of “performance enhancers” such as cocaine amongst the affluent or heavily stressed.