The Guardian 6 April, 2005

Drug tests must respect privacy

Greg moved out of his girlfriend's place, dropped a pile of his friends, stopped going to parties and subjected himself to a rigorous de-tox treatment and diet all to get his casual job back on the waterfront. It took a month. But Greg has now tested clear of cannabis metabolite, the compound that shows up in your urine if you smoke pot.

"There's just no justice in a bloke being able to hit up on smack the day before going to work and still get a clear result in a drug test the next day while blokes like Greg who like a social smoke on their days off, or hang out with people who do, can test positive and stand to lose their job even when they haven't been near the stuff for weeks and even when they are highly competent and productive workers", said National Secretary Paddy Crumlin.

Ensure safety

"Any drug or alcohol test should be about ensuring safety. Drug abuse is as dangerous as alcohol abuse in the workplace. It should be about testing for impairment. And urine tests just don't do that. We're against them. The union is not campaigning for legalising cannabis. In fact studies have proved that smoking cannabis can trigger schizophrenia and other mental illness in certain cases.

"But OH&S is all about making sure the job is safe, not intruding on people's personal lives unfairly or penalising them. Testing should reflect a community accepted approach."

At the Maritime Union National Delegates' Conference last March, delegates adopted a policy opposing random drug tests and urine tests. This is the basis for the union's new drug and alcohol policy for the stevedoring industry. A policy paper on the seafaring industry will be finalised this year. In the oil and gas industry zero tolerance for drug and alcohol use has become the international standard following Exxon Valdez oil spill where alcohol abuse was found to be a contributing factor.

Central to the new draft policy is a requirement that drug and alcohol tests can only be carried out at work if an employee appears under the influence of a substance and first fails a test of their ability to work safely and competently. Otherwise mandatory drug and alcohol tests are only acceptable after an accident on the job or before a worker returns after undergoing counselling or treatment for drug or alcohol abuse.

Random tests are unacceptable

Greg has been a casual wharfie with Northern Shipping & Stevedoring in the Port of Cairns since July 2000. His mate Rod dedicated over 20 years of his life working permanently on the Cairns waterfront. Both believe that smoking a joint on Saturday night definitely has no reflection on a workers' ability to operate cranes and forklifts on Monday morning. Both were denied work, after failing to pass random urine tests, until they could produce negative results.

Greg got his experience and qualifications in the rigging and crane industry before joining the waterfront.

"For the record, neither of us has been involved in any safety incidents", said Greg. "I was employed for my machine operating skills and my sound work history. I would gladly be the first to be tested if directly involved in a job accident. I am fully aware the use of drugs in the workplace is a hazardous and unsafe practice. I strongly believe testing should be carried out for impairment and safety and not invade people's private lives."

"I considered myself to be one of the best and safest operators on the wharves", said Rod. "My safety record proves this."

Cairns was without two of their best operators and workers.

Rod was forced to take sick leave; Greg had no sick leave, no pay and no income because he was casual.

Greg and Rod are not alone. Dozens of waterside workers at major city terminals as well as regional ports have been subjected to random urine tests. Some have been forced to leave the industry.

"In Australia, alcohol, tobacco and any other similar drugs are legal substances enjoyed by many adults", the union policy states. "Indeed, enjoying a drink is considered part of the Australian way of life. If people choose to use alcohol, tobacco and other drugs in their private lives, it is their own business. However, if they do it in the workplace or come to work impaired by alcohol or drugs they pose a risk."

The MUA policy developed by National Training Officer Eddie Seymour in consultation with OH&S industry professionals, especially Mary Yaager OHS & Workers Compensation Co-ordinator for Unions NSW (labour council), does not discriminate between management and workers.

Education and training

A safe work culture depends on everyone conforming to safe work practices. It also includes education and training about the dangers of drugs and alcohol. And it requires companies to provide assistance and counselling to those with problems.

The policy aims "to implement an impairment recognition program that is not intrusive, invasive or a breach of an individual's privacy or dignity and that assists the company to meet their obligations under the OH&S Legislation."

The first test of anyone suspected of being drugged or drunk on the job is whether a worker can operate heavy machinery, or do other work required, safely.

Tell-tale signs of drug or alcohol abuse affecting safety on the job include aggressive outbursts; poor balance or co-ordination; forgetfulness; "near miss" incidents; difficulty in concentrating on a task or a conversation, difficulty following simple instructions.

But the policy warns that these signs could also be the result of prescription medications.

Side effects

Some medications (whether over the counter or prescribed) have side effects which may cause impairment and the union advices members to ask their doctor or chemist if any medications they are taking could affect their work.

"Fatigue too can make the job unsafe. Research shows that the performance of a fatigued worker is similar to a blood alcohol concentration twice the legal driving limit. Some employers dismiss this risk while over-reacting to the risk of drug and alcohol", said Paddy Crumlin.

An authorised assessor only permits mandatory drug tests once the worker fails an impairment test. But the policy also advocates that voluntary self-testing be made available to workers before the start of a shift.

The MUA policy which the union will be negotiating to have employers sign off on during the year, stresses that anyone suspected of being under the influence of drugs or alcohol on the job has the right to have a union organiser present during any assessment. A senior management, site delegate, first aid officer or OH&S representative must also witness the test.

"This process effectively allows the employer to assess an employee's ability to safely undertake his or her work duties without relying solely on expensive drug testing", the union policy states.

Impairment test

If a worker fails an impairment test, and is suspected of being drug affected he or she is required to undergo a saliva test. This is because cannabis traces can show up in urine tests several weeks after taking or being exposed to the drug. Saliva tests, which are currently being trialled by police in NSW and SA, only show recent and heavy exposure to cannabis.

Only if a worker tests positive should a urine test be carried out. A third test by a professional laboratory must be undertaken before disciplinary action or counselling is required.

The battle to get companies to sign off on the new policy is not expected to be easy and will come too late for some stringent testing standards, including random testing and zero tolerance, introduced into many industries including transport, building, manufacturing and mining.

"But we're having a go at getting a fair and balanced approach that protects both individual rights while ensuring safe workplaces", said Paddy Crumlin.

"This drug and alcohol test has not been based on impairment and safety. I believe we were discriminated against", said Rod.

Maritime Workers' Journal

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