Responses to questions: Vulcan Steel court case, 2021

A reader asked, in response to a prior newsletter email about the Vulcan Steel court case, regarding their drug testing policy:

How can a drug testing policy be both not specific enough, as well as being too prescriptive? It’s either one or the other!

We’re glad you asked.

A drug testing policy should be both specific and focused.

Specific means that it’s clear what we are going to do, and we state exactly that in the policy. No vague terms, no unclear directions, no ambiguous consequences.

An example of an unspecific policy (borrowing from last week):
Drug testing will utilise hair and/or urine and/or saliva test techniques, as outlined in the DASP.

An example of a specific policy:
Urine drug testing will utilised for pre-employment, random, and rehabilitation, and oral fluid drug testing for post-incident and reasonable cause drug testing.

Focused means that the policy strips out everything that’s irrelevant or unnecessary. The exact mechanics of our drug testing process is very interesting, but it’s not relevant or necessary for the policy. A (very) high level overview will serve fine.

An example of an unfocused policy:
Random drug testing will be drawn from a pool of employees on site. A number shall be assigned to each employee, and written down on a piece of paper. The pieces of paper will be put into a bag and shaken. 5 pieces of paper will be drawn out and the employees those numbers correspond with will be drug tested. The drawing will be done in the presence of a union representative.

An example of a focused policy:
Employees shall be selected randomly for random drug testing.

This is fairly easy to achieve if you separate your drug testing policy from your procedures, instead of combining the two.

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Drug testing court case review: Vulcan Steel, 2021

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This is an archive from the Sober Check newsletters, which are sent out every week.
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Vulcan Steel Limited v Manufacturing & Construction Workers Union (2021) is an interesting case that was fought over urine drug testing vs oral fluid drug testing.

Vulcan Steel had the following clauses in their drug & alcohol policy.

3.3 Drug testing will utilise hair and/or urine and/or saliva test techniques, as outlined in the DASP.

8.3.1 Prior to undergoing a test, a test consent form will be signed by the employee consenting to the relevant method(s) of testing.

The Employment Relations Authority ruled that, as the policy stood, this gave employees the right to choose what form of testing they wanted.

Vulcan Steel made two mistakes in their policy:

  1. They weren’t specific. Decide what form of testing you will be using, and state this clearly. Don’t include additional forms of testing ‘in case we might need it in the future’ — this just adds more ways for the process to go wrong. If you are going to be using different forms of testing, be specific about what situations they will be used in. E.g:
    Example Company Ltd will use urine drug testing for pre-employment, random, and rehabilitation drug testing, and oral fluid drug testing for post-incident and reasonable cause drug testing.
    All urine drug testing will be conducted in accordance with AS/NZS 4308:2008 (or subsequent revisions).
    All oral fluid drug testing will be conducted in accordance with AS/NZS 4760:2019 (or subsequent revisions).
    All alcohol testing will be conducted with a breathalyser verified to AS 3547:2019 (or subsequent revisions).
  2. Their policy was too prescriptive. Including more detail in a policy leaves more ways for it to go wrong. A drug testing policy should include enough detail for an employee to consent to this, but drug testing procedures should be in an entirely separate document unrelated to the policy.
    A policy should cover what (this is what we’ll be doing), and procedures should cover how (this is the process we go through when we carry out drug testing).

How adulteration works

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Let’s talk about adulteration in drug testing (also known as cheating).

It’s a commonly used concept to refer to three different types:

  • substitution — using someone else’s urine, synthetic urine, or a different substance altogether.
  • dilution — diluting the urine sample so the levels of drugs present drop below the cut-off level. The dilution can be in vivo (drinking excessive amounts of water) or in vitro (adding water to the urine).
  • addition — adding substances to the urine sample to prevent the drugs from being detected.

The way to prevent substitution is through your drug testing procedures: check the person isn’t carrying any containers or bags of liquid, ask the person to pat themselves down and to take off any heavy jackets or clothing items that can hide containers, and make it difficult for a liquid to be transferred if a container is smuggled through.

To catch dilution, the urine sample needs to be analysed to see if it matches the characteristics of a normal urine sample. In addition, the environment should be prepared to make it impossible to dilute a sample: drop a blueing tablet in the toilet cistern to prevent water being scooped into the cup, tape up any taps inside the room, tape windows closed to prevent water being passed in from outside.

To catch addition, the process is similar for dilution. The urine sample needs to be inspected and analysed to see if it matches the characteristics of a normal urine, and your drug testing procedures need to make adulteration difficult to achieve. Get the person to wash their hands before testing to remove any substance on their hands/under their fingernails, and stay alert for any signs adulteration is being use

Urine testing cups have an adulteration panel. They will test for a combination of the following adulterant indicators (a good cup will have most or all):

  1. Creatinine (required by the AS/NZS 4308 standard)
  2. pH
  3. Oxidants (may be named Bleach)
  4. Nitrites
  5. Specific Gravity
  6. Glutaraldehyde
  7. Pyridinium Chlorochromate

Stay tuned to our email newsletter, we will cover the meaning of each adulterant indicator, what substances are used to cheat, and procedures for detecting and preventing substitution and dilution.

Alcohol testing measurements

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Different countries around the world use different measures of alcohol in breath.

In New Zealand, we use micrograms of alcohol per litre of breath: in a given litre of breath, how many micrograms (one millionth of a gram) of alcohol does the breath contain?

The symbol for this is μg/L. The current drink drive limit is 250 μg/L, and the DIC (criminal) limit is 400 μg/L.

Most company policies state cut-offs of 0 μg/L or 100 μg/L, with 0 μg/L being the most common.

New Zealand is fairly unusual, using μg/L. The only other countries around the world that use this are Botswana and the Netherlands!

The alternative that we see most often is grams of alcohol per two hundred and ten litres of breath: in two hundred and ten litres of breath, how many grams of alcohol does the breath contain? This is commonly used in Australia and America.

The abbreviation for this is g/210L. In this measurement, our current drink drive limit is 0.052 g/210L, and the DIC limit is 0.083 g/210L.

The updated standard for breathalysers, AS 3547:2019, specifies that breathalysers should measure in g/210L. This is a real pain for New Zealand – we have built up intuition over years of testing that 20 μg/L is a low result and 500 μg/L is a high result. That intuition suddenly no longer applies when being faced with readings like 0.0042 g/210L and 0.105 g/210L!

It remains to be seen how New Zealand will respond to this standard: whether we adopt it entirely and switch measurement units, or whether we adopt it in part and keep using μg/L.

If our measurement ends up changing, the magic number to convert between measurements and get an approximate result is 4,762. To get from μg/L to g/210L, divide by 4,762:

250 μg/L ÷ 4,762 = 0.052 g/210L.

To get from g/210L to μg/L, multiply by 4,762:

0.08 g/210L × 4,762 = 380 μg/L.

Drug testing devices need to be room temperature

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Drug testing relies on reactions between antibodies (on the test strip) and antigens (in the sample, the substance being tested for).

At a lower temperature, reactions occur slower, or not at all.

If your cups are cold you will get inconsistent results, often: panels failing to run, weak/patchy lines, or colours failing to appear on the temperature strip.

Make sure your cups are warm before testing!

For storage, store your cups in a warm office or cupboard, at the temperature range the manufacturer suggests. This is usually from 2°C – 30°C.

When using a cup, the temperature range is smaller. Follow the manufacturer recommendations, usually this is from 15°C – 30°C.

Cold warehouses and vehicles can present a challenge in winter to keep cups at an ideal temperature, but a bit of planning can eliminate these concerns. Have enough cups stored in the office for a few days of testing (plus a some extras for those last minute requests!).

Cups should be stored in an insulated room overnight, as the minimum — a couple of hours in a warm office is not going to be enough to warm up really cold cups, as they’re fairly well insulated in their foil wraps.

Whoops – I ran a test and suspect the the cup was too cold. What can I do?

If you think you have an abnormal result you can test again.

If you’re using a split cup (like the Medix Pro-Split cup), the portion of the sample being tested is split off from the rest of the sample. You can pour the rest of the sample into a new, warmer cup, and repeat the test.

If you’re using a screw top cup (like the MicroScreen cup), ask the donor to give another sample.

As always, these cups are a screening test only. If in doubt after testing again, send the sample to a laboratory for confirmation.

How drug tests work: the technology

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Drug testing seems simple – you just run the test and read the result. However, behind this simplicity hides a lot of complexity.

Drug tests use competitive lateral flow immunoassay technology. Here’s what the italicised words mean, broken down:

Competitive format: this means that two lines = negative, one line = not-negative. This is the opposite of a sandwich format test, where two lines is positive (the most common example of this is a pregnancy test).

Lateral flow: the urine or saliva starts at one end of the strip, and flows laterally (along) the strip.

Immunoassay: a test for the presence of a molecule, using antibody/antigen reactions.

This is a complicated and interesting technology, which enables quick point-of-care testing.