Should Workplace Drug Testing Be Allowed?

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Recent developments in medical technology have paved the way for workplace drug testing, to find out whether someone has recently used a drug. But should workplace drug testing of employees by their employers be allowed?


While stereotypical drug users may be unemployed and homeless, with the inability to exert any self-control, the reality is that some of the most highly educated and respected occupations are at high risk of alcohol and drug use, including physicians, lawyers, and all manner of shift workers. It is becoming increasingly evident that substance users permeate all sectors of society. And the reasons for their drug use are complex, with drug use often being spurred on by unrealistic expectations by employers for workers to cope with extended stress and lengthy shifts.

So there are two opposing agendas at stake here—the health and safety agenda, ensuring that people in positions of responsibility are clean and sober, and the civil liberties agenda, emphasizing individual freedom, the right to privacy and protection from discrimination.


Workplace drug testing encourages greater responsibility among workers who may cause harm to themselves or others by working under the influence. Would you feel comfortable knowing that any of the following professionals were working under the influence of alcohol or other drugs?

  • The surgeon operating on you, your parent, or your child?
  • The bus or train driver, driving your child to school?
  • The truck driver tailgating you on the highway?
  • The airline pilot in control of your flight?
  • The person building your house?
  • The midwife delivering your baby?

Workplace drug testing can help identify employees in need of help with their substance use. Because people with addictions are often highly secretive and deceitful, drug testing circumvents the need for honest self-reporting, which is highly unreliable when people have a lot to lose; in this case, potentially, both their livelihood and their reputation.

When proper informed consent procedures are followed, workplace drug testing acts as a deterrent to people who might otherwise experiment with, or regularly use alcohol or drugs.

Workplace drug testing has the potential to greatly enhance health and safety in the workplace, by discouraging people from abusing substances and thereby suffering any ill health effects and reducing the likelihood of accidents and injuries related to working under the influence.


Taken out of context, and with all responsibility placed on the employee, workplace drug testing does not take into account the pressures that the work environment may place on employees, including but not limited to:

  • Workplace hierarchies and bullying which drug testing could exacerbate
  • Insufficient support for managing work-related stress
  • Long shifts, particularly those requiring disruption to normal sleep cycles

Workplace drug testing is also an invasion of people's basic privacy.

Workplace drug testing also could fail to take into account the mental health problems of people with addictions, instead blaming the employee in a way that would be unacceptable for any other mental or physical health problem. Rather than being offered appropriate treatment, people who test positive on drug tests are at risk of being fired without compensation, and being ineligible for welfare or other social assistance. This will create, or further compound, a marginalized underclass of disenfranchised citizens, who have even less incentive to quit their addiction.

Workplace drug testing also has the potential for abuse. When someone's entire livelihood, reputation, and future rests on the outcome of a drug test, we need to be absolutely sure we are not getting those tests wrong. And people need to be able to defend a positive test, which could potentially be accounted for by other factors, such as a pot-smoking roommate, a spiked drink, a poppy-seed bagel, or a prescription or over-the-counter medication.

Finally, workplace drug testing should be a justifiable course of action, rather than a routine screen used to discriminate against alcohol or drug-using employees. Although employers may have value judgments about use of alcohol and drugs, as long as they are not being consumed on the premises, employees are not coming to work under the influence, or alcohol or drug use is interfering with the completion of work, alcohol and drug use is part of the employee's private life.


There is no denying that workplace drug testing offers an objective and generally accurate way to establish the truth of someone's drug use. In situations where the employee has a responsibility for the safety and/or welfare of others, and the employer has a responsibility to ensure the employees' competence, there is a strong argument for workplace drug testing being carried out.

However, if workplace drug testing is to be carried out, there are some basic ethical principles that need to be in place to avoid violation of the rights of the employee. These include, but are not limited to:

  • Informed consent: The employee needs to know, ideally prior to taking the job, that abstinence is an expectation, and the workplace drug testing is planned.
  • Confidentiality: The employee's privacy must be respected, including whether workplace drug testing has taken place as well as the result and consequences.
  • Reasonable expectations: Employees' ability to cope with stressful work experiences, such as exposure to traumatic or stressful events, such as caring for sick and dying people, large numbers of difficult clients, extended screen time, and excessively lengthy or changeable shifts, should be assessed.
  • Repeat tests should be conducted when a workplace drug test is positive, and employees should be given the opportunity to explain a positive drug test result.
  • Provision of addiction counseling and/or rehab should be offered in positive drug test cases.
  • Support in transitioning to more suitable employment if appropriate.
  • There should be clear justification of the relevance of workplace drug testing to the situation. It is a different issue entirely for an employer to test an employee when their drug use has no relevance to their job or responsibilities.

    In conclusion, drug testing in the workplace should ideally be used to enhance the health and safety of employees and those receiving services. They should not be used to further marginalize drug users, by cutting off their access to employment or social welfare. People with positive results must be treated with dignity and respect, and be supported rather than shamed; this is the only way we will avoid the misuse of workplace drug testing to discriminate. That will further establish an underclass of poverty, homelessness, unemployment, criminality, and substance abuse among those found to have positive results.

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