Drug warning from an expert

Kirk Hardy, CEO of TDDA, warns of the consequences of liberalising laws around cannabis, after witnessing an “explosion” of general drug problems in Canada and parts of the US where it has been decriminalised.

 As the contracting industry steadies the ship and returns to pre Covid-19 levels, Kirk Hardy, CEO of the country’s largest drug testing company, The Drug Detection Agency (TDDA) says workplace health and safety should be front of mind.

Smart companies will be thinking about what their employees were doing while at home during the lockdown and realise this is a great time to revisit and re-educate team members about the real dangers of alcohol and drug abuse in the workplace, he says.

It is also a good time to check that your H&S policy includes a clear approach towards drug and alcohol abuse which numerous studies show play a large role in workplace accidents and deaths.

A good H&S policy covers drug and alcohol procedures, investigations, testing regimes, warnings and terminations, and something that many don’t realise – support, counselling and rehabilitation.

“A good policy goes beyond stating what is and is not acceptable at work”, says Kirk who funded his drug and alcohol workplace testing company TDDA, which now has over 65 locations throughout Australasia, some 15 years ago.

Before that, he was a drug squad detective in New Zealand and regularly presents at health and safety events and drug conferences here and internationally.

The impact of cannabis legalisation on the workplace

 The referendum around cannabis legalisation is looming and Kirk is worried that if we’re starting to normalise drugs, which may be the result of the referendum, then “we will be in for a hell of a shock because it’s going to have an impact on employers as they’re going to have to pick up the pieces.”

As mentioned in a feature in Contractor February 2020, a Civil Contractors report highlights legalised cannabis as a threat to the sector, with two-thirds of respondents saying it would negatively impact their business. CCNZ Chief Peter Silcock says businesses were already struggling with staff recruitment due to substance abuse, which will become “even harder” with the legalisation of cannabis.

Kirk’s warnings come after he witnessed an explosion of general drug problems in Canada and parts of the US shortly after cannabis was decriminalised.

“The problem with legalising cannabis is that it drives up the other illicit drug markets, and this includes dangerous and heavy drugs like methamphetamine, heroin and cocaine because there’s more money involved.

“It’s bloody scary,”

 A slippery slope

Kirk notes that the drug problems faced by employers and the rest of the country is much more extensive and fluctuating than most people think. A good example of this is the recent explosion of opioid use, which are drugs most often legally prescribed by a medical practitioner for pain relief. The problem with opioids is that they are incredibly addictive and widely available, he says.

Employees struggling with an opioid addiction pose several risks to a workplace, especially in blue-collar industries where they handle heavy machinery and drive large vehicles.

One opioid, in particular, fentanyl, is causing havoc around the world. Fentanyl is available here in New Zealand as prescription medication and is used for slow release for cancer patients.

“It’s very good pain relief, but open to abuse. The transdermal patches can be soaked in alcohol to produce raw fentanyl that can be shot up,” says Kirk.

“As a synthetic opioid, fentanyl is a very powerful drug, and in some forms, it can be 80 times stronger than morphine.

“The overall drug problem in other markets has extended to an epidemic of opioid addiction deaths because drugs like cocaine and heroin are becoming laced with fentanyl, without users even knowing it.”

Legalised cannabis, illegal drugs and opioids are all intertwined, and part of the same dangerous web, says Kirk, which is why it’s such a bad idea to legalise cannabis.

“Although we are behind the US in terms of drug testing, and our drug-use trends tend to follow the US and not Europe, Kirk says our drug court is working well but is not the total solution.

“There’s only so much the justice system can do to stop drug abuse. Having worked in the police force and seen first-hand the lengths drug abusers will go to secure their next hit, I  know how hard it is to stop them.

“You need strong deterrents in the first place because it’s very rare that I’ve seen people volunteer to get some form of help with their drug addiction unless their situation is dire – like facing criminal charges, family separation or experiencing exacerbated mental health issues.”

It is this knowledge that led Kirk to set up TDDA. He wanted to help deter people from using drugs in the first place. Workplace testing is an effective way to stop sporadic and party drug use from happening in the first place or turning into an addiction, which is why TDDA focuses on this type of testing.

“Workplace testing is a deterrent against workplace drug and alcohol use – much like roadside police testing is a deterrent against drink driving. But these days, best practice includes more than just a workplace testing regime, it also leverages pre-employment testing and identifying a prospective employee with a long-term drug and alcohol problem. It is a basic risk mitigation.”

Drug testing accreditation

TDDA has about 3500 clients around New Zealand, including several large civil contractors, and performs over a couple of hundred thousand tests per year.

“This includes a number of smaller subcontractors who have to prove their workers are drug-free to get on a large site,” says Kirk.

The company currently has 59 mobile units in New Zealand and 32 in Australia, and 27 brick and mortar sites from Northland down to Invercargill, that are all independently IANZ accredited. Interestingly, accreditation is still not compulsory in New Zealand. This might be the reason for the growth of unaccredited drug detection services, warns Kirk.

“Our TDDA IANZ accreditation is done through an independent body that processes and validates our systems, including specific drug testing devices that all have performance criteria. We also have to do blind testing, or what is called proficiency testing.

“The RCPQA will send us blind samples from Australia of spiked drugs and we’ll have to test that in our devices and report back to prove the performance of that device.

“There’s quite a science behind it to get the right processes in place to avoid any adulteration of a sample. Drug users will go out of their way to avoid getting detected with cheating methods.

“Some people try to sneak in their partner’s urine or synthetic urine. And if we are doing oral fluid testing, we need to make sure the mouth is clear of any sort of substance like chewing gum and food as oral fluid testing can also be cheated.

“And, anyone knowing that a drug test is coming up, such as a pre-employment drug test, can, under certain circumstances, ‘study for the test’ and attempt to cheat it.

“This is why site testing must be random. As long as you are not a heavy daily user, cannabis won’t be at detectible levels in urine after 72 hours. So, random testing works as a deterrent, similar to that of a random police roadside breath testing.”

Another side of the accreditation process is to make sure no environmental contamination can happen.

“A fleet of mobile testing vans play an important role on remote roading and construction sites and must be kept scrupulously clean to provide a sterile environment”, Kirk says.

“This is so we can’t be challenged by some form of ‘environmental contamination of samples’ argument that can be used in defence at an employment authority hearing. This is why IANZ with ISO15189 medical accreditation is so important to protect the client, and for that accreditation to be nation-wide.

“You might see a company on the IANZ website that is only accredited to Auckland and you’ll have another one only accredited to Wellington. Anywhere outside of those regions and they are not accredited, which means any testing they do outside of their areas can be challenged because the process has not been independently verified by an accreditation governing body.”

Using a non-accredited agency can result in some things happening, he adds. The first is notwithstanding a legal challenge.

“Things like DIY testing kits rarely hold up in court, whereas an internationally accredited test does. The other issues are false positive and false negatives which lead to two other situations. Clean employees being sent home, and worse, intoxicated employees remaining on the job.”

Kirk adds that several of the available drug testing agencies in New Zealand and Australia do not have the right accreditations, which leaves their test results open to scrutiny, something employers should be aware of”.

On-site testing procedure

“The average on-site test takes between 10-12 minutes, depending on if it’s oral fluid or urine analysis”, says Kirk.

“And that includes going through their consent processes, putting them at ease, and explaining the process”.

Consent for random drug testing is usually part of a worker’s employment agreement, but they can still refuse. All drug and alcohol policies carry a section about testing refusals, and there are a lot of areas a company needs to make sure are crystal clear.

“That’s why you can’t have a contractor decide they are going to test their own workforce because it can go terribly wrong.”

Kirk says the actual percentage who refuse testing is very small, under 0.5 percent, while the number of positive tests sits around 5.5 percent onsite, and around four percent in pre-employment tests.

“Most employment agreements will have something about abiding by a company’s policy on health and safety. You don’t have to be specific on drug and alcohol in an individual employment agreement, but it pays to have worker involvement.

“This could involve asking for feedback on introducing a drug and alcohol testing policy in, say, six weeks, so they know exactly what is coming up.

“And if a worker requires any help in terms of addiction or concerns, over that time you can provide help by some form of counselling. A lot of big organisations have what’s called an employee assistance programme in place, where workers can be referred to a help number that is confidential.”

Don’t let drugs enter your workplace

Drug and alcohol policies aren’t meant to be punitive; they’re meant to keep everyone safe, Kirk stresses, including the potential offender.

“Because drug policies, trends and testing technologies evolve at such a rapid rate, contractors should revisit their policy every 12 months. And now, when you are returning to work after Covid-19 is the perfect time to do so.

“A strong H&S policy that includes an efficient way to avoid drug and alcohol abuse is the best assurance against workplace accidents and ensuring that none of your workers end up on the Council of Trade Union’s yearly list.”


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