Choosing the right drug test

Types of tests

Three types of workplace alcohol and drug tests are commonly performed in Australian workplaces:

Urine            Saliva               Breath


It is estimated that urine testing accounts for the majority of Australian workplace testing, with saliva testing accounting for a smaller population but rapidly increasing. 
It is interesting to note that breath testing for alcohol remains reasonably low and usually random, although 80+% of the Australian population (over the age of 18) consume alcohol.
Follicle (hair) and blood testing are also available however these are rarely if ever used within Australian workplaces.

Should I use a Urine or Saliva test?

There are considerable arguments between employers, unions and even the judicial system as to whether an organisation should test an employee for recreational drug use (urine) or determine whether an employee is “fit for work‟ (saliva).

Urine Testing

Urine tests are used to determine if an employee has taken an illicit substance recreationally, such as on the weekend or while on leave.
A urine test can highlight an individual’s drug use, however it cannot determine whether or not that person is “currently under the influence‟.
This type of testing can detect if drugs remain in the persons system up to 3-4 days after consuming.
Urint testing is considered as a successful method for deterring drug use.

Saliva Testing

A saliva test on the other hand detects the “active‟ ingredient in the drug which is currently in oral fluid/saliva, indicating current and/or recent drug use.
Although there is no way of determining through a saliva test "the degree of impairment‟ a person may have, by identifying the “active” ingredient, there is a greater probability that this person has recently taken the drug (within the last 24 hours).
Recent use of an illicit drug means there is a higher likelihood the person may still be under the effect of that drug and not fit for duty.

If a Saliva screening test produces a Non-negative (Presumptive Positive) result, indicating the presence of a drug above the defined cut off, the person could be considered to have a degree of impairment due to the high concentrations of the active ingredient.
Similar to BAC, if the person is over a certain BAC% level they are considered to have a degree of impairment from alcohol consumption.


Breath Testing

Breath testing is the most simplest and cheapest method for screening for recent alcohol use.
If using a breathalyser for workplace alcohol testing, you must ensure the breathalyser has an industrial grade sensor.
All workplace breathalysers are required to be re-calibrated every 6 months, irrespective of the times used, or manufacturer guidelines.


Potential impacts of Recreational drug use by employees

Identifying if an employee is using a drug for recreational use is important, for a multitude of reasons: 

  • Inconsistent work quality
  • Poor concentration and lack of focus
  • Lowered productivity or erratic work patterns
  • Increased absenteeism
  • Unexplained disappearances from the jobsite
  • Carelessness, mistakes or errors in judgment
  • Risk taking
  • Disregard for safety for self and others
  • Extended lunch periods and early departures
  • Workplace accidents and injury

Exact reasoning for implementing and conducing a drug and alcohol testing programme needs to be clarified within the organisations Drug and Alcohol Policy.
Recent court rulings have been in favour of complainants, suggesting that recreational drug use outside of work time is not the business of the employer.
It is however, the obligation of an employer, under the Occupational Health and Safety Act, to ensure that the whole workforce will be kept safe, and therefore current impairment or “fit for duty” is very much the responsibility of the organisation to manage.


The testing environment matters

Urine tests are far more invasive in many ways.
One of the main causes for concern is the submission of a urine sample to another person whether inside the company or external, it is a substantial issue for many.
The second invasion is privacy which is discussed in more detail below.
Urine testing is not easily conducted on a random basis unless there are facilities readily available.
It is often “advertised” so employees can attend a testing facility, office or mobile van to submit a sample. 
This increases the potential for the use of adulteration or substitution to be prepared for the test.

Saliva Testing does not suffer the same issues.
It is easily conducted anywhere, anytime.
A saliva sample is easy to submit and a dramatically reduced opportunity to adulterate a sample.
(rinsing the donors mouth with water 10 minutes prior to the test overcomes adulteration possibilities)


Heat and light conditions can also affect testing

All drug tests are sensitive to excess heat over 300C, or cold under 50C.
Light conditions can affect the ability to clearly read the results on some tests e.g. it is difficult to see a faint line in bright sun.
The more sensitive the test, quite often the negative lines can be very faint and difficult to detect in outdoor conditions. 

Privacy & Legal Issues

Legal Issues:

Until recently, the right of employers to require an employee to undergo mandatory or self-assessed urine testing was not a substantive issue.
The major issue had in fact been centred around the invasion of privacy.
It has been argued by employee organisations that urine testing was an invasion of privacy as it would reveal drug use for up to a week, rather than the immediate capacity of the employee to undertake duties on the day or shift.
Many employee groups have strong opposition to urine testing in favour of saliva testing being more appropriate form of testing for impairment in the workplace.

Invasion of Privacy regarding the use of drugs outside of work is a very volatile issue, similarly the issue of confidentiality and maintenance of records is an issue.
Saliva Drug testing is the preferred test in most situations.
Saliva Testing measures a shorter timeframe from hours to 2-3 days depending on the substance used, it is preferred by most employee organisations and employees.


When an organisation is drafting or reviewing their drug and alcohol policy, and in order for there to be a successful drug and alchol testing programme, there needs to be a collaborative process between employees, employee groups, stakeholders and management.
Any legal concerns, or issues of privacy are usually overcome with thorough consultation with employees and agreement on a appropriate solution.

Who conducts the testing

If testing is fully compliant with Australian Standards, the person who conducts the test must be suitably qualified in HLTPAT005 Collecting specimens for Drugs of Abuse testing.
Their qualifications are included on the Chain of Custody form, or within the data retained for each employee.

Again, this will be determined by the organisations Drug and Alchol Policy, as many companies do not use this approach due to the specific company policy regarding non negative results e.g. a non punitive response.

While both cases can apply in the Australian workplace, it is advised that the collectors do undertake the training available as it assists in producing a qualified and more accurate results due to the competencies gained by the collector in obtaining and conducting the test using the correct procedure. The experience is invaluable if there is an issue with test results, donor response to a non-negative screening test, or complications with the test.

Ask for advice

If in doubt ask!

Seek professional advice on the appropriate test kit for your workplace.

MediNat Australia provide a wide range of screening test kits, are available to advise on the most suitable test kit for your testing programme.

When asking any organisation for assistance, be sure of two things:

  1. The person you talk to has the experience and knowledge to appropriately advise you.
  2. Make sure the company you talk to has a range of test kits to choose from, if they only have one or two, then that is all they can or will advise.
  3. We have a policy at MediNat Australia that if we don’t have the right test for you, then we will refer you to a company who has!

Make sure your supplier has a range to choose from to suit your requirements or will refer you to someone who has.