Considering drug testing in your workplace?

The most important thing to know about drug testing is that it’s not a ‘silver bullet’ and needs to be accompanied by other measures that will make up a broader, rehabilitation-focused strategy.

Making the decision to voluntarily drug tests can be complicated, because it’s an infringement on an employee’s bodily and information privacy1 . This infringement must be justified by the goals that testing is being implemented to reach.

What are you hoping to achieve?

It’s crucial to consider the purpose of testing and what the organisation is hoping to achieve through its use. There are two options; testing for recent use and a higher likelihood of current impairment, and testing for past use. Your organisation needs to consider their end goal when choosing between these two types.

There are arguments from both sides of the divide as to whether an organisation should test whether an employee is ‘fit for work’ (saliva) or test an employee for recreational drug use (urine).

Fit for work testing: saliva

There is no way of determining through drug testing if a person is impaired, but a saliva test does detect the active ingredient in a drug. If an active ingredient is detected, there is a higher chance that this employee has taken the drug recently (within the last couple of days). This could potentially mean that the person is still under the effect of that drug.

Past use testing: urine

Urines tests cannot determine is a person is under the influence of a substance. It can determine if an employee has taken a substance in the past, such as on the weekend or on leave, but cannot tell you exactly how much or when. Urine testing can be understood as a detection method for recreational use, and as a means of deterring drug use.

The issue of deterrence can be complex; some employees may switch drug types to avoid detection, and can sometimes switch from using a less harmful to a more harmful drug. For example, when being urine tested cannabis use has a longer window of detection (up to seven days for a casual user, or up to 30 days for a heavy user) whereas cocaine use has a shorter window (up to three days).2

Why care about past use?

Identifying if an employee is using a drug recreationally is important, because it can impact their work in many ways, such as:

  • Inconsistent work quality
  • Poor concentration and lack of focus
  • Lowered productivity or erratic work patterns
  • Increased absenteeism or on the job ‘presenteeism’
  • Unexplained disappearances from the jobsite
  • Risk taking
  • Disregard for safety for self and others
  • Extended lunch periods and early departures
  • Workplace accidents and injury

A clear policy is a necessity

Whether or not your organisation decides to introduce drug testing, an alcohol and other drug policy (that includes pharmaceutical drugs) is a must.

Details about drug testing

If your organisation decides to introduce drug testing voluntarily, or is mandated to do so, inform yourself of the details you’ll need to know.

  1. Australian National Council on Drugs. (2013). Positon Paper – Drug Testing
  2. Australasian Medical Review Officers Association (