Details about drug testing

Do I have to test my workplace?

Unless you are directed by a specific work order or code of practice, such as that set out within the construction, road and rail transport, aviation, and mining industries, then the decision to drug test or not is up to your organisation.

Can a drug test tell how much of what drug was used, or exactly when it was used?

No. Apart from alcohol breath tests, drug tests don’t measure impairment. Results are dependent on several factors, such as the strength of the drug, how it was taken, metabolism, individual drug use patterns, and what type of test was used.1

What kinds of tests are there?

Common tests in Australia are saliva, urine, and breath.

Saliva test: informs if ‘active’ ingredient in a drug is present. Does not necessarily indicate impairment, but indicates recent use (in the past couple of days).

Urine test: informs of past drug use, such as that on leave or over a weekend. Does not inform if employee is ‘fit for work’, only past use. Accounts for an estimated 85-90% of testing in Australia. Seen as a detection method for recreational use and a deterrent against use.

Breath test: for alcohol impairment. Same principle as roadside testing. Breath testing rates for alcohol remain low, despite that nearly 80% of adult Australians consume alcohol, compared to 15% reporting illicit drug use in the past year.2

Can I use a saliva test to detect the presence of a drug, then use a urine test to confirm the result?

No. Saliva and urine tests are completely different, with different cut off levels for detection. What each test looks for has been processed at separate rates, and in separate parts of the body.

How are the test specimens collected?

Testing can occur on-site using ‘point of collection testing’ (POCT) devices, which is generally cheaper and faster. Samples can also be sent to a laboratory to be analysed, which is slower but more accurate and better at distinguishing illicit drug use from prescription drug use.

You may have a specialised on-site tester, a nominated and fully trained member of staff who conducts the tests, or you could send employees to a workplace medical facility for their testing.

What drug test result terms are used?

There are three basic terms you need to be familiar with.

Positive: this term can only be used with confirmation testing results using either a GCMS (gas chromatography-mass spectrometry) or LCMS (liquid chromatography-mass spectrometry). Under Australian standards, you cannot say a result is positive at a screening test. You must wait until it has undergone a confirmation test either at a lab or using specialised on-site test equipment.

Non-negative: used at a screening test (urine or saliva) to flag that a test is potentially positive. The samples need to be further tested using GCMS or LCMS for confirmation. Positive cannot be used at the screening stage.

Negative: when nothing is detected in the screening test or by GCMS/LCMS confirmation testing.

Do masking agents work?

No. All commercially available masking agents can be detected by a trained collector when performing an adulteration test.

Can synthetic cannabis (Kronic, Spice, K2) be detected?

Yes. Synthetic cannabis can be detected through saliva and urine tests.

What are estimated detection periods?

Windows of detection for different drugs vary depending on factors like:

  • How much was consumed
  • How it was consumed (smoking, oral ingestion, injection)
  • Body size of the individual
  • Individual metabolism
  • Strength of the drug
  • Age and gender
  • Overall health

Table: Estimated detection windows

Drug Urine Saliva
Alcohol Up to 24 hours N/A
Amphetamine and methyl amphetamine Up to 4 days Up to 2 days
Short acting barbiturates Up to 4 days N/A
Long acting barbiturates Up to 30 days N/A
Benzodiazepines Short-term: up to 7 days. Chronic: up to 4-6 weeks Up to 48 hours
Cocaine Up to 3 days Up to 2 days
Codeine Up to 3 days Up to 3 days
Heroin Up to 3 days Up to 2 days
Cannabis (THC) Casual user: up to 7 days. Heavy user: up to 30 days Up to 24 hours
Methadone Up to 3 days Up to 24 hours
Morphine Up to 2 days Up to 2 days

Can someone refuse to be tested?

Employees do have the right to refuse a test, however their refusal might be detrimental to their continued employment with the organisation.

It is critical that a company has a comprehensive alcohol and other drug policy – which includes pharmaceutical drugs – that is widely known by all staff and linked back to their employment agreement. A good policy will ensure compliance if you chose to test, and avoid any unnecessary conflict.

How many people should I test?

This is determined by the organisation, and varies depending on the risk assessment of the industry. If your company operates with heavy machinery, the percentage of staff being tested should likely be greater than that of a company which only operates in an office environment.

The percentage of staff tested generally rages from 10% to 30%, per year.

Can I target-test staff members, or does it have to be random?

Your alcohol and drug policy will cover this in detail, and should stipulate that you can conduct both random and targeted testing. It is recommended that random testing be done across the entire organisation, but target testing is appropriate in situations such as an employee giving a non-negative followed by negative confirmation test, or having been involved in an accident.

Should I have a zero tolerance policy?

Zero tolerance can mean different things. Some organisations understand zero tolerance as not allowing their employees any level of drugs or alcohol in their system or their employment is terminated. Other organisations understand zero tolerance as taking administrative action against every instance of positive testing. The most common position taken is that of a three strike policy, giving employees a chance to demonstrate that they made an error in judgement and are taking steps to prevent any further incidents.

It is important that your alcohol and drug policy very clearly state what is meant by zero tolerance in your context. Factors to consider include:

  • Allowable levels of alcohol or drugs in your body
    • For example, 0.0% or 0.05% blood alcohol concentration (BAC)
  • What action will be taken if an employee fails to return a negative result
    • Disciplinary action will be taken at every instance of a positive drug test (often a three stepped approach)
    • Termination of employment is considered, however the employee has an opportunity to explain their actions or reasons for special consideration
    • Immediate termination of employment
  1. Australian National Council on Drugs. (2013). Position Paper – Drug Testing.
  2. Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW). (2014). 2013 National Drug Strategy Household Survey Report. Retrieved from