Drug Testing

A measured response to meth in the workplace


“It’s an epidemic!” scream the headlines. News articles over the past six months have claimed ‘P’ is easier to get than weed, “rampant” in the West Coast workforce. Meth use in Christchurch is often blamed on the influx of construction workers.

Employers are understandably worried about their responsibilities, and may feel the need to take a hard line approach to drug use, especially when it comes to meth.

First, we would recommend taking a deep breath. Don’t let unconfirmed stories scare you into taking the wrong approach.

The statistics are confusing, especially when read alongside media reports. The government claims that overall numbers of people using meth are dropping: According to Ministry of Health figures, meth usage has dropped to one percent, down from 2.2 percent in 2009.

But the reports keep coming, from Northland, Waikato, the West Coast and other regions. Police and drug workers tell a very different story.

The reality is probably both: While it may be true that overall meth use has dropped over recent years, anecdotal evidence suggests high concentrations in certain areas – across geographic and socioeconomic locations, and probably certain workplaces.

There are no reliable figures, and while health professionals, drug workers and the government argue numbers, employers are left unsure of their responsibilities. The recent Health and Safety regulations have put a lot more responsibility on managing workplace risk, and if someone is using meth at work, then that workplace could be unsafe.

They are right to be concerned, says NZ Drug Foundation executive director, Ross Bell. “In fact, it’s their legal obligation to protect the safety of their workers and the public.”

So how should employers respond to the risk of drug-use in the workplace?

Firstly, you should already have an effective policy which addresses drug and alcohol issues in a supportive way, while complying with health and safety responsibilities.

Random drug testing could play a role in this, but be warned, Ross says. Drug testing can be invasive, and doesn’t always get the results you are after.

“In the vast majority of workplaces, drug tests are not the promised simple silver bullet. In fact, they may well do more harm than good. Businesses who make uninformed decisions on workplace drug testing risk breaching their workers’ rights, or even incurring court sanctions.”

And consider what your response will be in the event of a positive test result. There is a lot of international research which indicates that deterrent approaches are not effective in changing behaviour.

Know when to ask if someone is ok. Drug use is often a symptom of underlying issues, and people do recover from addiction. You don’t have to fire your employee – a better approach might be a warning system, and offering help with recovery.

“One of the best tools for fostering a safer workplace is to let employees know you are open to helping them if they have a problem,” Ross says.

Modern, evidence-based thinking tells us that a supportive approach is more effective in dealing with problematic drug use. Impairment can be more effectively monitored by employers through good personnel management, being aware of signs and symptoms, and introducing a safety culture around recognising and reporting risks.


The Drug Foundation recommends developing a positive health and safety strategy around smoking, nutrition, exercise and stress. If you make it clear that you have your employees’ best interests at heart, instead of using scare tactics to bring them into line, they are more likely to buy into your strategy.

“It’s true. You’re not responsible for what your employees do in their private lives; nor do you have to tolerate repeated bad behaviour,” says Ross. “However, helping an employee who really wants to change into rehabilitation may be better for your workplace environment.”

The warning signs

It’s important to understand that signs and symptoms of meth use don’t always indicate a problem with the drug. Most people only try meth once or twice, without becoming regular users. However, knowing the signs can alert employers or supervisors to a potential problem.

For example, a worker high on methamphetamine can initially be very productive, focused and efficient. But this phase of productivity is unlikely to continue. Researchers have found that an inability to ignore distraction or to focus on a task is another possible indication of methamphetamine use.

Coming down from the high can cause feelings of anxiety, sometimes extreme irritability and paranoia. Other physical and emotional/behavioural signs and symptoms include a decrease in appetite, unexplained weight loss, insomnia, dilated pupils, hand tremors, dry mouth, excessive talking, and in some cases, hallucinations.

Workplace drug testing in New Zealand

In 2004, Air New Zealand won a controversial Employment Court case which allowed them to test their staff due to the safety-critical nature of the work.

But the Air New Zealand case did not signal a free-for-all. Random drug testing is only legal in safety-sensitive areas of high-risk businesses, where someone could be badly hurt if something goes wrong.

In addition, large scale research around employee behaviour in a range of industries found random drug testing is not effective at increasing workplace safety. Although it can lead employees to reduce their substance use outside of work hours, there is no evidence to show that use of workplace drug testing leads to decreased impairment at work.

Despite this, blanket drug testing policies are common. Aside from the questions around efficacy, testing can be problematic, because employees may not realise when an employer is breaching their rights.

Even if you think your work is safety-critical, we would suggest you get legal advice before going ahead and implementing random drug tests.

If you do decide to go down that road, it’s important that you make sure staff are aware of their rights, and that your policy and methods are completely transparent. You should outline your drug testing policy in your employees’ agreements, and make sure it’s made clear in any letter of offer.

If you’re not sure how to go about implementing a drug testing strategy into your employment agreement, there is a really great tool available on the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment website, which takes you step by step through the process.

The website includes specific advice about drug testing policy, and guidelines around protecting your employees’ human rights and privacy.

Just keep in mind that while drug testing may tell you if a worker used meth over the weekend, it can’t tell you they are fit to do their job (such as operate heavy machinery) on any particular day. There is currently no good scientific ‘test’ to detect this kind of impairment.

Testing for meth use

When it comes to methamphetamine, urine testing is the most common method.

Amphetamines, like speed and some prescribed medications, are usually detectable in urine for 1-3 days after use, while methamphetamines, which include the drug we call ‘P’, stay in the system slightly longer, 3-5 days. That means a weekend binge could be clear of the system by Monday morning.

And beware: If your employee has taken over-the-counter drugs like pseudoephedrine, or some nasal sprays or asthma medications, they could find themselves explaining a false positive.

Also, detection periods and rates can vary, depending a number of factors like amount and frequency of use, metabolic rate, body mass, age, overall health, drug tolerance, and urine pH of each individual.

The short detection period could provide scope for seasoned users to cheat the system. If someone is aware of the limitations and knows when the testing is happening, they could substitute another substance that’s undetectable or plan their use around detection times.

What that means is – you’re more likely to catch out one-off or occasional recreational users than long-term users who could be experiencing problems with addiction.

For these people, detection could be a critical step on the road to recovery – but do you really want to subject the rest of your employees to the indignity of peeing in a cup, in order to weed out that one person who may have a genuine problem?

Article provided courtesy of the NZ Drug Foundation.

NZ Drug Foundation www.drugfoundation.org.nz


Ross Bell

NZ Drug Foundation executive director

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