Working with employee representatives for a safe workplace

22 September 2015

Effective, comprehensive health and safety procedures are not only essential for compliance with the Operational Health and Safety (OHS) Act, they are also important to ensure productive working environments. However, implementation of policies and procedures regarding drug and alcohol policies and testing may not be straightforward.

Organisations cannot simply dictate that they will be conducting such testing, nor can they instantaneously implement it where this did not previously exist. To ensure maximum buy-in and minimum friction, companies should follow a step-by-step approach, and work with unions and employee representatives to ensure inclusive, fair and effective safety programmes are introduced.

According to the OHS Act, employees may not be under the influence of alcohol or drugs while in the workplace. This is critical in industries where safety hazards are numerous. It is thus essential to implement policies and procedures around these substances. The most effective way to identify the use of drugs or alcohol is to conduct testing using specialised equipment.

To facilitate testing programmes, organisations should involve the unions and employee representatives from the outset. Policies, procedures and testing need to be clearly outlined, how the testing will be conducted, how frequently, and more. The selected testing methods should be thoroughly explained, along with reasons for their selection.

In addition, education needs to form a large component of any drug and alcohol policy. Organisations need to ensure that employees and representatives understand the rationale behind testing policies and procedures – that this aims to create a safe and productive working environment, not to fire people. The dangers of drug and alcohol use, their negative impact on workplace safety as well as financial and long-term health implications, should form part of the education drive.

Using real examples of incidents where people have been injured or involved in accidents is very effective. Examples involving acquaintances or ex-colleagues are particularly effective, making the dangers of alcohol and drug abuse in the workplace more real. Organisations should also emphasise the benefits – improved health and finances – once substance abuse is controlled.

Organisations must also give notice before testing can begin. The exact date need not be specified, but organisations should warn employees that testing will begin in, say, three months, giving them time to come forward with problems or get clean on their own. This must also be implemented by working with representatives to minimise misunderstanding. Furthermore, safety officers must be trained in procedures and with the equipment selected for testing.

Involving all parties from the outset, and focusing strongly on education for both employees and representatives, is the only way to effectively overcome resistance to implementing drug/alcohol testing. In this way, organisations can resolve any issues up front, ensuring that the process of implementing new health and safety practices and policies is as smooth and well accepted as possible.

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