Should employers test workers for alcohol and drug use?

Drug and alcohol testing is highly controversial and raises issues of human rights and data protection. It is, however, becoming more commonplace.

Information about workers' health is 'sensitive personal data' and employers who carry out drug and alcohol testing must follow the guidelines set out in part 4 of the Information Commissioner’s Employment Practices Code (PDF, 529KB).

Key points to note from the Code are that:

  • collecting information via drug and alcohol testing is unlikely to be justified except for health and safety reasons. Very few employers will be justified in testing to detect illegal use rather than on safety grounds;
  • post-incident testing, where there is a reasonable suspicion that drug or alcohol use is a factor in an accident or other incident, is more likely to be justified than random testing;
  • employers should use the least intrusive form of testing available and only test where testing gives significantly better results than other less intrusive options;
  • workers must be told what drugs they are being tested for;
  • collecting personal information by testing all workers in a business will not be justified if only those workers who are engaged in particular activities pose a risk;
  • even in safety-critical businesses like public transport or heavy industry, workers in different jobs will pose different safety risks, so collecting information through the random testing of all workers will rarely be justified; and
  • employers must be open about their actions. It would be unfair, for example, to pretend testing is ‘random’, when this is not genuinely the case.

Alcohol or drugs testing is no substitute for policies which should be developed in consultation with staff.

Note: This content is provided as general background information and should not be taken as legal advice or financial advice for your particular situation. Make sure to get individual advice on your case from your union, a source on our free help page or an independent financial advisor before taking any action.