Random drugs tests for workers

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DRINK AND drug misuse by workers is costing employers up to pounds 3bn a year, according to a survey published yesterday.

A quarter of workplace accidents involve workers who have been drinking, while up to 14 million working days are lost every year through alcohol misuse, research found.

Alcohol-related problems such as accidents cost industry pounds 2bn a year while drug misuse cost pounds 800m, the survey for the Trades Union Congress and Alcohol Concern showed.

But experts in drug and alcohol dependency clashed over the need for random testing in the workplace.

One academic insisted that the United States experience demonstrated the effectiveness of unexpected swoops, while another commended "less punitive" means of controlling dependency.

Writing in Personnel Today magazine, Patrick Dixon pointed out that random tests now covered 40 per cent of the US workforce, compared with a tiny proportion of British employees.

Dr Dixon predicted that the American approach was about "to hit" the United Kingdom in the wake of its success in reducing absenteeism and accidents in the US.

Dr Dixon said that US studies showed that "substance abusers" were 33 per cent less productive, three times as likely to be late, four times as likely to have an accident at work, five times as likely to sue for compensation and 10 times as likely to miss work.

He pointed out that when the US state of Ohio introduced random testing, absenteeism fell by 91 per cent, and there was a 97 per cent decrease in workplace accidents.

One plastics company in the United States found that many employees were taking amphetamines after their shifts were lengthened to 12 hours. After random testing was introduced drug-taking fell to negligible levels, Dr Dixon said.

He pointed out that testing was cheap. Breathalysers cost pounds 40 with virtually no running costs, while drug tests had to be "carried out on only a few to act as a deterrent to everyone".

Addressing a TUC conference yesterday on drink and drug misuse, Peter Francis, a sociologist from the University of Northumbria, urged a less punitive approach.

He said there were more effective means of addressing substance misuse. He urged that the principle of "fairness" should be taken into account and warned that there were implications that the US approach could lead to overbearing social control.

The conference, sponsored by the TUC, Alcohol Concern and Institute for the Study of Drug Dependence, heard that substance abuse cost employers an estimated pounds 3bn a year. Some pounds 2bn was lost through the abuse of alcohol and around pounds 800m through the misuse of drugs.

Union leaders said that they favoured a "sensitive and non-judgemental" approach to the problem.