Workplace Drug Testing (WDT) has been around since the 1990s in New Zealand. Initially focused on those working in forestry, fishing, shipping and mining, testing was rolled out to dairy and meat industries, transportation, roading and construction in the 2000s. The practice has always been mired in controversy.
In 2004, Air New Zealand won an Employment Court case for the right to drug test their workers. Since then, tens of thousands have encountered workplace tests. The repercussions for those who test positive – warnings, ‘rehabilitation’ programmes, social vilification or dismissal – can be significant. As part of Criminology Honours study, Emma Sherwood undertook research on these contentious practices, and discovered results that questioned their legitimacy.
Sherwood outlines many of the criticisms against WDT, including that: it unnecessarily invades a worker’s privacy; tests cannot determine whether workers are able to perform their role; and employees can evade positive WDT results. She questions the common-sense assumptions that WDT deters drug use or reduces workplace accidents.
Her primary research, with 144 NZ employees, examines issues of safety, productivity and privacy. Among other results, she found no significant correlation between drug use in the workplace and accidents, and little relationship between productivity and drug use. A significant portion of participants passed a drug test they felt they should fail.
She argues that workplaces are often more concerned with identifying any illicit drug use, as opposed to detecting impairment. For example, an overwhelming majority of participants maintained that colleagues came to work with alcohol related hangovers, yet few failed a drug test. She concludes that the current evidence base does not provide adequate justification for WDT.
Emma Sherwood completed her Honours degree in Criminology at Victoria University of Wellington in 2016. She’s now having a year off, working and travelling.