Drugs in the workplace: What are employers' responsibilities?

HRD talks to Kellie-Ann McDade, partner at Baker McKenzie, on dealing with substance abuse at work

Drugs in the workplace: What are employers' responsibilities?

Many employers in Australia are going to great lengths to control drug and alcohol issues in the workplace.

In Tasmania, West Tamar Council deemed drug testing a success last year, after becoming the first Council in the state to apply testing to councillors.

The management of West Tamar Council said they introduced drug and alcohol testing four years ago because of the potential health and safety benefits for their staff and community.

So, what are an organisation’s obligations if a worker tests positive for drugs at work?

Baker McKenzie partner, Kellie-Ann McDade, told HRD there’s no doubt a drug or alcohol problem that impacts an employee's ability to do their job is a matter that an employer “can and should promptly deal with”.

Firstly, and most importantly, McDade said employers have an obligation to take all reasonably practicable steps to ensure that a workplace is free from risks to health and safety.

Read more: Will performance enhancing drugs appear in the workplace?

“Employees also have an obligation to take reasonable care for their own health and safety,” she said. 

“Employees may be risking their own and their fellow workers' health and safety if they are attending work under the influence or otherwise affected by drugs or alcohol.

“This doesn't mean that an employer will always be justified in dismissing an employee suffering drug or alcohol issues.”

Substance abuse has been on the agenda a lot this year, with a recent study by the Australian National University finding that drug and alcohol usage has increased.

The research found almost one-in-four women who drank at all (22.8%) reported an increase in drinking during May 2020. Almost one-in-five men (17.9%) reported an increase in the same period.

Another interesting finding uncovered a correlation between increases in alcohol consumption and increases in the use of illicit drugs.

The study found the vast majority of adult Australians who said that their consumption of illicit drugs had risen also said that their consumption of alcohol increased.

Given the importance of addressing the issue before it escalates, McDade said employers must consider what steps and measures they can put in place to eliminate or minimise risks to health and safety for an employee suffering from a drug or alcohol problem.

This will necessarily involve monitoring an employee known to have a substance problem and providing support and assistance that is reasonable and practical. 

Read more: Failed drug tests on the rise

“It also doesn't necessarily mean you will be able to implement mandatory drug and alcohol testing, although this might be something that is warranted depending on the circumstances, your industry and an employee's particular job and duties,” said McDade.

It is also important that employers have clear and useful drug and alcohol policies in place that specify the organisation's expectations of employees and other workers, she added.

“These policies can also serve as useful reference points for employees suffering substance problems to seek help - for example, by approaching HR or utilising the organisation's employee assistance program.”


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