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Drugs and alcohol testing: What are the rules while operating farm machinery?

Suzannah Robin, an alcohol and drug safety expert at AlcoDigital, has helped numerous companies across the UK to implement testing policies and procedures.


Here she explains the importance of testing and how technology can help to cultivate safety in farming....

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Drugs and alcohol testing: What are the rules whilst operating machinery on-farm?

By now, we’re probably all familiar with the government’s annual drink-drive campaign and the dangers of being intoxicated behind the wheel.


The message is clear – if you’re on a public road, do not drink and drive. But, what are the rules whilst operating machinery in the workplace or driving on private land such as a farm?


High profile incidents in recent years - which include a number of deaths caused by workers who were impaired by alcohol whilst driving tractors either on farmland or out on the open road - have highlighted that drugs and alcohol testing should be an essential element of the health and safety protocol for the industry.


Stricter regulations would save lives, serving as a deterrent to those even considering abusing substances in the workplace.


What’s the law?


While drugs and alcohol testing are legislated for in certain sectors, such as the aviation, rail and the shipping industries, there is no legal obligation for the agriculture sector to adopt any specific testing policies - at present it is down to individual employers to implement them.


However, under the provisions of the Health and Safety at Work Act employers do have an obligation to ensure employees are fit to work.


If methods for detecting misuse are not implemented and an accident occurs, it’s employers who could face hefty fines or even be prosecuted.

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Farming is one of the most dangerous occupations in the UK and work related deaths and injuries currently cost the industry an estimated £190 million per year.


Therefore, having a robust health and safety policy is absolutely fundamental to ensuring a safe environment is maintained and applying a drugs and alcohol testing policy as part of this makes complete sense.


Evidential breath tests


For high associated risk industries, it is recommended that drugs and alcohol testing is carried out on a regular basis.


For alcohol testing, a range of professional police-grade breathalyzers are available for screening workers that will provide quick, accurate and instantaneous results.


In the event an employee returns a positive result from a screening test, the company should re-test the employee with a UK Home Office or EN approved breathalyzer, to guarantee that any information collected is certified accurate if required for future use as legal evidence.


In addition to breathalyzers, alcohol interlocks are also extremely versatile and can be utilised on equipment or machinery preventing them from starting until a negative breath test has been given.


Illegal drugs and prescription medication


It’s no surprise that illegal substances such as cannabis, cocaine, ecstasy, and ketamine are all off limits. But it’s the other ‘everyday’ drugs, which many think of as innocuous, that could be a ticking time-bomb for those not in the know.


If an employee is taking prescription medication or using over-the-counter drugs, they may not be aware that they are putting their safety, and the safety of others, at risk.


Employees should always consult a doctor, pharmacist or healthcare professional for advice before embarking on a course of treatment, and inform their employer to prevent any misunderstandings in the future.

Drug tests – know the pros and cons


With numerous options available for drug tests, it isn’t always immediately apparent which method will be the most suitable for meeting an employer’s requirements.


The first step before making any commitment to using a certain testing method is to fully understand the pros and cons for each type of drug test available.


So whilst an employer may already have an idea about what drug testing method they will use, understanding the various benefits and restrictions of each version will truly help to establish which one will be the most suitable for their requirements.


One of the most popular choices for drug testing – but not always the most effective – is testing urine samples. For many years these have been used as a reliable and cost-effective form of drug testing, providing instant results that can be recorded in-house.


However, whilst urine tests are ideal for implementing random testing policies, and can serve as a deterrent to employees misusing drugs or alcohol in the workplace, this form of testing is not without its limitations.


For example, a urine test will often not reveal if an individual has consumed drugs in the last two hours. So, in the event that an incident occurred in the workplace, a urine test obtained immediately afterwards might not determine if the employee was impaired by drugs at the time the incident actually took place.


Blood testing is the most accurate method of establishing what drugs are in a person’s system – but the medical training and laboratory analysis required can mean it is not ideal and can be beyond the reach of companies requiring a regular testing policy.


Hair testing can provide historic data of what drugs a person has used – but not from the most recent few weeks.


For this reason, oral fluid collection has been established as the go-to method of drug-testing.With a far simpler collection process, which can be observed at all times and is therefore less susceptible to tampering, the window of detection for the drugs in saliva mimics that of blood testing.


Consequently, it’s the method of choice for UK Police roadside testing, and many companies implementing drug screening policies.

Best practice policy and training


Of course it isn’t just about the type of equipment being used, but also how the procedure is carried out and followed through. This means making sure the staff implementing a testing policy have the sufficient training to perform them fairly and effectively.


If an employer does not follow best practice policy this can cause issues further down the line, particularly if an employee has tested positive for drugs or alcohol.


Therefore, professional and reliable training is absolutely crucial for those being assigned to implement alcohol testing policies in the workplace, ensuring that reliable evidence can be presented in the event of an industrial tribunal.


Workplace wellbeing


Aside from the obvious health and safety benefits, if implemented effectively, a robust policy will also help to reduce absenteeism, increase worker productivity, and improve customer satisfaction.


The industry continues to improve health and safety standards across the board. Establishing a drugs and alcohol testing policy should be every employer’s priority as part of maintaining this standard.

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