Substance abuse amongst staff can affect all areas of employment, whether it be a decrease in productivity, increased absenteeism or the increased likelihood of accidents and injuries. The failure to identify and deal with a problem is an unnecessary risk for businesses and can prove costly.
The Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 makes it an offence for any person to permit the production, supply or use of controlled drugs or substances on their premises, unless they have been prescribed by a doctor.
Employers also have a general duty under health and safety legislation to ensure, as far as is reasonably practicable, the health and safety and welfare at work of their employees and to make sure that no one else is put at risk as a result of the work activities of an employee.
Under the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 employers have a duty to assess the risks to the health and safety of their employees. If you knowingly allow an employee to carry on working whilst under the influence of drugs and this puts others at risk, you could be prosecuted.
Health and safety law applies to driving activities as it does to other work activities and the risks must be managed accordingly. Drivers must not be under the influence of drugs while driving, attempting to drive or when they are in charge of a vehicle. In addition, the Crime and Courts Act 2013 (Commencement No 1) (England and Wales) Order 2014, which came into force on 2 March 2015, makes it a criminal offence for a person to drive with a concentration of any specified controlled drug above the maximum specified limit for that particular drug.
What to Look Out For
Possible signs of drug misuse include:
- impaired performance such as lack of concentration, a tendency to become confused and poor judgement;
- sudden mood changes and unpredictable behaviour;
- poor time-keeping;
- unusual irritability and deteriorating relationships with others;
- lower personal standards – self-neglect;
- increased time off work;
- dishonesty and theft.
There may, of course, be other reasons for such behaviour patterns but it is sensible to consider the possibility that misuse of drugs could be the cause.
What to Do
Even if you are confident that your business does not currently have a problem, drug misuse that affects the workplace is a growing threat. It is advisable to have an agreed, written policy setting out the company’s position.
Employees should be well informed as to the policy and know that it applies to everyone in the company. It should form part of your overall health and safety policy. Make sure you consult with employees and with safety representatives.
The policy should include a definition of drug misuse, have clearly stated aims, name the persons responsible for carrying out the policy and give clear guidelines as to what employees must do to comply with the rules.
If an employee suffers from drug addiction, you should support them, not punish them. Offer them counselling and encourage them to seek voluntary help. Addiction could be viewed as an illness in an unfair dismissal case so disciplinary procedures may not be appropriate. The policy should contain a statement assuring employees that problems will be dealt with in confidence, subject to the provisions of the law. It should, however, be made clear that a breach of the law (for example the possession of or dealing in substances that are controlled under the Misuse of Drugs Act in the workplace) will be reported to the police immediately. Make clear the circumstances in which disciplinary action will be taken.
It is important to train key staff to be aware of the signs of drug misuse and how to handle the situation sensitively.
Review your policy regularly and check that it is widely understood. If you have a staff handbook, it should contain details of the policy. Make awareness of the policy a part of the induction programme for new employees.
Where it is justified, some employers screen employees for illegal substances as part of their drug policy, particularly in safety critical industries. With the widespread advance in non-intrusive methods of testing, this is likely to become more common. However, this is a very sensitive area because of the legal issues involved and we would recommend you take advice to ensure there is no breach of your employees’ rights. Also, the results of any drug tests must be handled in accordance with the General Data Protection Regulation and the Data Protection Act 2018. Good practice recommendations specific to the collection and handling of information derived from drug and alcohol testing can be found in Part Four of the data protection 'Employment Practices Code' published by the Information Commissioner's Office.
Psychoactive Substances and Your Workplace Drug Policy
The Psychoactive Substances Act 2016 makes it an offence to produce, supply, offer to supply, import or export any psychoactive substance if it is likely to be consumed for its mind-altering properties. There is a list of exemptions, which includes legal substances that are in everyday use, such as nicotine, caffeine and alcohol, and medicines, which are regulated elsewhere.
The substances targeted by the Act usually contain one or more chemical substances which, when consumed, imitate the effects of illegal drugs controlled by the Misuse of Drugs Act. Prior to the ban, these substances were frequently referred to as 'legal highs'. They often contain ingredients that have not been tested on humans and so their effects are hard to predict. As such substances are not generally intended for human consumption, they have frequently been marketed as bath salts, incense or plant food. The drugs have three main effects – as stimulants, sedatives or hallucinogens.
Possession of a psychoactive substance is not in itself an offence, except where it occurs within a 'custodial institution' – i.e. a prison, young offender institution, remand or removal centre etc.
The Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (Acas) advises employers who do not already do so to include the use of psychoactive substances in their workplace drug and alcohol policies. As screening for their use can be difficult, Acas suggests focusing on the effects of such mind-altering substances on employees' behaviour and ability to work, rather than on the drugs themselves.