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East Riding of Yorkshire's testing regime slashed absence rates but did not alienate staff. William Little reports...
East Riding of Yorkshire's testing regime slashed absence rates but did not alienate staff. William Little reports

East Riding of Yorkshire Council introduced a workplace drug and alcohol testing policy in September 2003 in response to concerns that staff were working under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

The policy gives the community confidence that council workers will not endanger their lives. It also gives managers an independent means of checking staff without risking allegations of prejudice.

The policy has reduced absence rates due to alcohol misuse by 4.3% during 2003-04, while accident rates at work have been cut by 25% since 2000-01. East Riding has also used the policy to promote its commitment to reducing substance misuse within both the council and the community. As a result, East Riding was highly commended in the human resources category at this year's LGC Awards.

The policy underwent three years of research and consultation before being put into action. Human resources manager Zoe Martin, who helped to formulate the policy, says the job proved more complex than the council first thought. No research had been undertaken before and the relations between staff, managers and unions had to be closely managed.

Initially, says Ms Martin, the council wanted to random test every member of staff but, after consultation with Unison, realised this could send out the wrong message about why the policy was being introduced. If the premise was health and safety and the welfare of staff, and not a judgment on workers' lifestyles, there would be no need to test an office clerk, for instance.

All staff were canvassed for their views. For those who didn't belong to a union, policy updates were placed on the intranet and full and active consultation was encouraged. The draft policy was also formulated in consultation with testing company Drug Test Limited, the crime review and scrutiny committee, cabinet members, the council's own legal services, occupational health, safety services and the drug action team.

Guidelines on which staff should by tested were eventually agreed by all parties. Of 17,000 staff, only those in safety critical jobs such as driving, working with children and roads maintenance would be tested randomly.

The next step - and one of the most crucial, says Ms Martin - was to decide who was to undertake the tests. A number of options were considered, including managers testing staff themselves. But this could have led to accusations of prejudice.

It was decided a third party was the best way forward. Whoever took the role had to be highly experienced in the field, with stringent quality standards to ensure the results were not open to question or doubt. A number of companies gave presentations to the council's corporate management team, and Drug Test Ltd was eventually selected.

The company had been collecting samples in the workplace for more than seven years, and had worked with other government agencies such as theForensic Science Service. Ms Martin says Drug Test Ltd follows a strict 'chain of custody' regime that extends to the transportation of samples, laboratory analysis, medical reviews, results, storage of samples and their eventual destruction.

On the test form, staff declare any over-the-counter medication. This information is treated in the strictest confidence and no council manager can access it.

Drug Test Ltd also suggested ways to protect the anonymity of staff. Payroll numbers are sent out with samples to the company - names and any other identifiable features are restricted.

The policy also has to have clear procedures in place in case a member of staff refuses to take the test. Every effort is made to discuss the implications of the testing policy. It has been made clear that a positive test would result in support being offered rather than instant dismissal.

Staff have the right to challenge a positive drug or alcohol test, which means the control sample is submitted for further testing. So far, no complaints have been received. In all cases, the individual to be tested is advised they may be accompanied by a trade union representative or other person. This individual will only act as a witness, not a representative. Therefore if the individual to be tested requests a trade union representative but no such person is available, the procedure is not delayed.

Ms Martin says the consultation process was the most productive and useful element of the policy's development. The original submission was described as 'draconian' and a 'sledge hammer trying to crack a nut'. However, the final policy has been welcomed by both mangers and Unison.

'Underpinning East Riding's approach is a recognition that drug and alcohol abuse is an illness that requires support,' says Ms Martin.

The numbers

516 accidents occurred in 2000-01. After the introduction of the Drug & Alcohol Workforce testing policy, this dropped to 390

317,000 residents over an area of 933 sq miles benefit from the council's services

20% of employers in the UK operate a similar policy

23bn is lost to the UK economy each year through alcohol abuse, according to TUC reports. This amounts to 14.8m working days.

The Champion

Nigel Row, transport manager at East Riding of Yorkshire Council, first raised the idea of independent drug and alcohol testing after concerns about drivers working under the influence of alcohol.

Following the introduction of the policy, a member of the public contacted the council claiming a bus driver was driving under the influence of cannabis.

The accusation was discovered to be malicious, following a negative drug test, which the staff member agreed to take.

Mr Row says 90% of his workforce, who are mainly professional drivers, were in favour of the scheme.

It is in their interests, he says, to be able to clear their name against any accusation. He adds: 'The only people who complained that it affected their civil liberties were those drivers who didn't drink.'

Key points

>> A full consultation with staff, unions and managers was undertaken to ensure all views were represented

>> Initial plans to test all staff were dropped after talks with the union

>> Drug Test Limited was employed by the council to conduct independent tests

>> Random testing was reserved for staff in safety critical jobs where the public could be put at risk.

>> Underpinning East Riding's approach is a recognition that drug and alcohol abuse is an illness that requires support.

More ideas on substance misuse

Dorset CC was awarded beacon council status in round two of the scheme under a youth drug-misuse theme

>> Tackling drug misuse is embedded in cross-council services and has clear inter-agency origins, support from the drug action teams and other partners.

>> The council has undertaken a large-scale survey of young people to build on the current consultation. It has also mainstreamed activities to tackle drug misuse among young people. Its work

has contributed to a 20% reduction in

the number of looked-after children in

the county.

Shropshire CC was awarded beacon council status in round two of the scheme under the youth drug misuse theme

>> The council has demonstrated good inter-agency support, with several innovative elements in drug education and special support for young people. Interventions have been based on evidence and good practice, and demonstrate strong links between drug action team plans, partner bodies and Shropshire's wider services.

>> The council has explored a number of methods to encourage input from service users, community bodies and young people. It has also established good links to other corporate and inter-agency plans such as the Crime & Disorder Partnership and the Connexions initiative. Efforts are being made to evaluate the impact of drugs education programmes, and these have been improved on the basis of feedback.

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