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BR may set trend with drink and drug tests

(First Edition)

IF BRITISH RAIL introduces strict drink and drug testing for workers following the Cannon Street rail crash, it will be one of only a handful of employers to carry out such screening.

Testing is now commonplace in the United States, where more than a third of the top 500 corporations carry out some form of check for alcohol or drugs misuse. But it has been slow to catch on on in Britain and Europe, where few companies screen workers and even fewer - almost exclusively oil companies - impose random checks.

It is estimated that 8 million working days a year are lost through alcohol-related complaints, costing the British economy about pounds 1.7bn. The tests proposed for rail workers would be among the toughest in British industry. BR wants to test more than 50,000 employees with operational or safety responsibilities. Each would face a regular check but without knowing when.

Alan Cooksey, deputy chief inspecting officer of railways, recommended introducing controls on drugs and alcohol for BR workers as one of 15 conclusions in his Health and Safety Executive report on the Cannon Street crash. The report blamed Maurice Graham, 25, the driver, for the crash, in which two passengers died. Traces of cannabis were found in his blood when tested three days later, but there was no evidence that the drug affected Mr Graham's performance.

Under BR's proposals, rail workers would be required to provide urine specimens for examination. Immediate disciplinary action would be likely if traces of illegal drugs were found.

Staff would not be allowed to have any alcohol at all in their blood, far stronger than the limit set for train-driving included in the Transport and Works Act, which comes into force in December and makes it a criminal offence to drive a train under the influence of drink or drugs.

BR is already one of the few companies to screen all new employees for alcohol and drug misuse. It says that several candidates have been rejected after tests.

British Nuclear Fuels (BNFL), which has run an annual medical check, including drug and alcohol urine tests, on all 15,000 staff since 1975, says offenders have been 'significantly less than 1 per cent'. No staff have been dismissed as a result of the tests.

Roger Colomb, managing director of Texaco UK, which began random testing on 1 August, said that it was statistically likely that some of its 3,000 employees used drugs or had an alcohol problem.

The company's programme was intended to assist with treatment those who came forward. All 1,100 employees in safety-sensitive positions or responsible for crucial decisions, including the board of directors, were subject to the tests.

'The main thrust of the policy is to see substance abuse and alcohol dependency as a medical problem,' Mr Colomb said.

London Underground, which introduced new drink and drug rules last week, advises its workers to consume no more than seven units of alcohol (one unit equals half a pint of beer or a glass of wine) in the 24 hours prior to duty and none in the eight hours immediately before a shift.

Union leaders accept the need for controls on drink and drugs but fear that complex shift working on the railways and zero limits could severely restrict the social life of many employees.