The Use of Prescription and Non-Prescription Drugs

September 20, 2018

The unseen issues of drug abuse are well-known, and the implications well understood, however there is potentially a bigger problem, which is the largely ignored use of legal drugs through prescription and purchase over the counter, and more dangerously the use of other people’s drugs, neither prescribed or bought for one’s own consumption.

It has long been the practice in every division of the Civil Engineering and Construction Industry to carry out, Pre-employment, periodic, random, unannounced and ‘For Cause’ Drug and alcohol testing either during induction or on site especially where critical works are undertaken. By critical works we mean in an environment with a higher risk than normal, for instance on Network Rail’s Managed Infrastructure, Off Shore facilities, Oil refineries, Nuclear and on the Highways, with a focus on those technicians and operatives driving plant regularly.

With the implementation of the Drink and Drug Driving Laws in March 2015 and which form part of the Road Traffic Act 1988, we all must be aware that certain medications can land us in trouble if we don’t address the practice of taking drugs of one kind or another.

The legislation is clear stating that It’s illegal to drive if either: you’re unfit to do so because you’re on legal or illegal drugs or you have certain levels of illegal drugs in your blood (even if they haven’t affected your driving ability).

As an employer and a very likely a responsible member of a supply chain we have a duty to instruct and educate the workforce to ensure that they tell us if they are taking medication of any kind. We already ask at self-assessment stage “do you have a drink or drug related issue” – we should maybe extend this to they should not drive too. Those members of your team who do take medication must be instructed and encouraged to talk to their doctor, pharmacist or healthcare professional, about the nature of their work and the potential impact of their prescribed drug on their work. They must also be informed that the police can stop us and make us do a ‘field impairment assessment’ if they think we are on drugs, which may be any of variety of tests such as asking you to walk in a straight line. They can also use a roadside drug kit to screen for cannabis and cocaine. If they [Police] think that we are unfit to drive because of taking drugs, we can be arrested and will have to take a blood or urine test at a police station. Employees could be charged if the tests show they have taken drugs.

Prescription medicines are no different from illegal drugs in the eyes of the law. Fact, it’s illegal in England and Wales to drive with legal drugs in your body if it impairs your driving and It’s an offence to drive if you have over the specified limits of certain drugs in your blood and you haven’t been prescribed them.

We must bear in mind in these days of stress and recognized factors affecting mental health in our industry there may be some members of our workforce on site that have been prescribed something that is or is similar to those identified below.

  • amphetamine, e.g. dexamphetamine or selegiline
  • clonazepam
  • diazepam
  • flunitrazepam
  • lorazepam
  • methadone
  • morphine or opiate and opioid-based drugs, e.g. codeine, tramadol or fentanyl
  • oxazepam
  • temazepam

You can drive after taking these drugs if, you’ve been prescribed them and followed advice on how to take them by a healthcare professional or they aren’t causing you to be unfit to drive even if you’re above the specified limits. It is worth noting that you could be prosecuted if you drive with certain levels of these drugs in your body and you haven’t been prescribed them and the link has some useful information about the issue. NB The law doesn’t cover Northern Ireland and Scotland, but you could still be arrested if you’re unfit to drive.

Then penalties for drug driving include:

  • a minimum 1-year driving ban
  • an unlimited fine
  • up to 6 months in prison
  • a criminal record

Your driving licence will also show you’ve been convicted for drug driving and this remains for 11 years. The penalty for causing death by dangerous driving under the influence of drugs is a prison sentence of up to 14 years. A conviction for drug driving also means:

  • your car insurance costs will increase significantly
  • if you drive for work, your employer will see your conviction on your license
  • you may have trouble travelling to countries like the USA

Having given you the official blurb above, it is essential that as an industry we look closely at our own workforce to ensure that through no fault of their own they do not become victims of ignorance. A recently taken, brief study has shown that there are operatives on site taking medication identified above as ‘legal’ that are known as ‘having a potential to affect concentration and ability to carry out safety critical tasks’.

Take for example, someone who uses his partner’s back pain tablets, or someone that has been taking their partner’s anti-depressants because they cannot admit that they have a mental health issue to his company or his colleagues. It is a dilemma; what these people are doing is potentially dangerous and they could be breaking the law by driving many miles to work under the influence of prescribed or non-prescribed, but legal drugs.

Perhaps it is time that your company directly asks the question during Induction or if suspicion is enough, the permission to write to your doctor. Medical self-assessment questionnaires don’t work because all too often, the admission of taking prescription pain killers is a taboo subject or taking non-prescribed medication is known to be a serious issue. We all know someone who is on prescribed Codeine or Co-codamol for a back problem and we know that every time they are tested the result is ‘positive’and an explanation is called for. But what about the guy taking his mates’ ‘Tramadol’ for the same reason, who always manages to avoid the test? As a responsible employer in the 21stcentury we are duty bound to help those who ask for it. Like Mental Health, we, the industry must break down the barrier of guilt, shame and peer pressure and there should be guidance offered to the workforce at the very point of employment in the strictest confidence so that the potential for criminal activity, accident, ill health and lost productivity is avoided.

If you are a member of a workforce who is taking long term prescribed medication or has been using someone else’s drugs for pain relief or to assist stabilise a mental illness such as anxiety or depression, please seek help and advice, first see your doctor and let your HR department now that you have a problem and can they possibly offer advice or sign post you to councelling.

Wouldn’t we much rather act in prevention and cure than in recrimination and retribution?

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