Understanding Drug and Alcohol Testing in the Workplace

Written by: Lawore Femi

Digital Sales Optimiser

Testing for drugs and alcohol at workplace is common in lots of jobs. For some kind of occupations like driving, having a workplace drug and alcohol test is very important. While its purpose is to ensure safety and well-being, it raises a multitude of questions for both employers and employees.

Testing people for drugs and alcohol is really important to keep workplaces safe. It helps make sure everyone follows the rules.

This blog post is here to explain how tests work, the different kinds, the rules, and what happens at work. We’ll talk about how drug and alcohol testing works, the different ways to do it, how long drugs stay in your system, the rules about it, and the policies at work.

What is Drug and Alcohol Testing?

Drug and alcohol testing is a process used to detect the presence of illicit substances or alcohol in an individual’s system.

Drug and alcohol testing involves collection and checking samples like pee, spit, blood, or hair to see if there are drugs or alcohol in them.

This is done in places like work, courts, sports, and hospitals to keep everyone safe and under legal rules.

It is primarily used in workplaces to promote safety, deter substance abuse, and improve overall productivity.

These tests can be conducted for various reasons, including:

  • Pre-employment screening: Assesses an applicant’s suitability based on drug/alcohol use.
  • Random testing: Ensures ongoing compliance with company policies.
  • Reasonable suspicion testing: Conducted when an employee displays signs of potential impairment.
  • Post-accident testing: Determines if substance use contributed to an incident.
  • Return-to-work testing: Confirms an employee’s sobriety before returning after a substance abuse program.

Understanding the different types of tests is crucial, as each has its own advantages and disadvantages.

testing tubes used for testing various substances in the lab

Common Drug and Alcohol Testing Methods

There are three main methods for drug and alcohol testing:

1.     Urine Testing:

Urine testing is very common for checking drugs and alcohol. The method for drug test involves taking urine sample and testing it to see if there are any drugs or alcohol in it. It is cheap, easy to find, and can find lots of different drugs like speed, painkillers, weed, and coke.

  • Description: The most common and cost-effective method. It involves collecting a urine sample and analysing it for the presence of specific drug metabolites (byproducts).
  • Advantages: Affordable, non-invasive, detects a wide range of drugs.
  • Disadvantages: Limited detection window for some drugs, potential for adulteration, cannot detect current impairment.

2.     Oral Fluid Testing:

Saliva or oral fluid testing is a simple way to check for drugs and alcohol. This involves a sample of spit and testing it to see if there are any drugs or alcohol. This method is great for finding out if someone has used drugs or alcohol recently or if they are affected by them.

  • Description: A swab is used to collect saliva from the inner cheek, detecting recent drug or alcohol use.
  • Advantages: Faster results than urine testing, convenient and non-invasive, detects recent use.
  • Disadvantages: Limited range of detectable drugs, shorter detection window compared to urine.

3.     Blood Testing:

Blood testing is seen as one of the best ways to check for drugs and alcohol. Samples of blood are taken and tested to see if there are any drugs or alcohol in it. This method is very accurate in finding specific substances or their leftovers.

  • Description: Blood is drawn from a vein and analysed for the presence of parent drugs or their metabolites.
  • Advantages: Most accurate method, detects current intoxication and a wider range of drugs, longer detection window than urine.
  • Disadvantages: More invasive and expensive compared to other methods, may require medical personnel for administration.

4.     Hair Testing:

Hair testing is a way to check for drugs using a small piece of hair. This involves looking at the hair (hair follicles) to see if there are any drugs or their leftovers. This method can show drug use over a long time, up to 90 days, which helps spot patterns of drug use over a long period.

  • Description: Hair samples are analysed for drug use over a longer period (weeks/months).
  • Advantages: Detects long-term drug use patterns, potentially useful for identifying chronic users.
  • Disadvantages: Expensive, results take longer, invasive collection process (may require hair shaving), can be affected by external factors (hair treatments).

5.     Breath Alcohol Testing:

This method checks if there’s alcohol in someone’s breath. It is used in places like work, by the police, and in transport jobs.

Advantages: Fast and non-invasive, can find out if someone is currently affected by alcohol or drank recently, easy to find and does not cost a lot.

Disadvantages: Only shows if there’s alcohol, not other drugs. Sometimes, it might say there’s alcohol when there is not, or other things can affect the result.

Choosing the Right Test:

The selection of a test depends on several factors, including:

When thinking about drug and alcohol testing, it is important to consider a few things:

  • Industry/Job: Some jobs or industries might need specific testing because of safety rules. For example, jobs in transport, healthcare, or ones with dangerous equipment often have strict testing rules to keep people safe.
  • Specific Risks: Think about what risks there are in the workplace. For example, if there are big machines, it is important to test for drugs that can make it hard to think or move.
  • Costs: Different tests cost different amounts. Companies need to think about how much they can spend and choose the best tests for their needs and budget.
  • Ethics: Drug and alcohol testing can bring up questions about privacy, fairness, and workers’ rights. It is important for companies to have clear rules, give information and support, and do tests in a fair and respectful way.

Types of Panel Tests

Panel testing refers to screening for multiple drugs or alcohol in a single test. Panel tests check for lots of different substances at the same time, which helps to get a complete picture. The number of substances tested depends on which panel is chosen for the test.

PanelDescriptionDetection Window (Urine)CustomizationConfirmation Required?Legal Considerations
5-PanelTests for the most common drugs: alcohol, marijuana (THC), cocaine, opiates, amphetamines.1-7 days (depending on drug)YesYesWidely accepted for pre-employment and random testing
7-PanelExpands on 5-panel by adding benzodiazepines (anti-anxiety meds) and barbiturates (sedatives).Varies for each drugYesYesMay be required for specific professions or safety-sensitive jobs
10-PanelFurther adds PCP (phencyclideine) and propoxyphene (prescription pain medication)Varies for each drugYesYesMay be necessary in situations where these specific drugs are a concern
12-PanelMost comprehensive, includes fentanylVaries for each drugYesYesMay be used in high-risk industries or for reasonable suspicion testing
Table above explains Panel test for drugs and alcohols

It is worth mentioning that panel tests can be changed to include or leave out certain substances depending on what’s needed for the testing program or industry.

Also, these tests might differ in how long they can detect drugs, how they confirm results, and what the legal rules are, depending on where the test is done and the policies in place.

How Long Do Drugs and Alcohol Stay in the System?

The length of time a drug or alcohol remains detectable in the system varies significantly. Several factors influence this, including:

  • Substance: Different drugs have varying detection windows depending on their metabolism and excretion rates.
  • Dosage: Higher doses generally stay detectable longer.
  • Individual factors: Metabolism, body composition, and hydration level can influence the detection window.
  • Test type: Different test types have varying detection windows for the same drug.

It’s essential to remember that the detection window provided in the panel table is an estimate and may not be accurate for every individual.

Here are some general rules:

  • Alcohol: Can show up in pee for about a day, in blood for 12-24 hours, and in breath for 24-48 hours.
  • Marijuana: Can stay in pee for about a month for occasional use, but in hair, it can show up for up to three months for regular use.
  • Cocaine: Shows up in pee for 2-4 days, but in hair, it can stay for up to three months.
  • Opioids (like heroin, morphine, or codeine): Can be detected in pee for 1-3 days, but in hair, it might show up for up to three months.
  • Amphetamines: Stay in pee for 2-4 days and in hair for up to three months. Benzodiazepines: Can be found in pee for 3-30 days, depending on the specific drug and dose.

Remember, these times are just estimates and can change depending on things like how fast your body breaks down the drugs, how much water you drink, and your body type.

Table shows: How long drugs and alcohol stay in the system using different test methods.

Alcohol12-24 hours6-12 hours12-24 hoursUp to 90 days
Amphetamines2-4 days6-12 hours1-3 daysUp to 90 days
Methamphetamine3-5 days1-3 days1-4 daysUp to 90 days
Cocaine2-4 days1-2 days1-2 daysUp to 90 days
Opioids (Heroin, Morphine)2-4 days6-12 hours1-4 daysUp to 90 days
Codeine2-4 days6-12 hours1-4 daysUp to 90 days
Oxycodone2-4 days6-24 hours1-4 daysUp to 90 days
Marijuana (Single Use)3-7 days1-2 days1-3 daysUp to 90 days
Marijuana (Chronic Use)10-30 days3-7 days1-29 daysUp to 90 days
Benzodiazepines3-6 weeks1-2 days1-7 daysUp to 90 days
Barbiturates2-4 weeks1-4 days1-7 daysUp to 90 days
Methadone3-8 days1-3 days1-4 daysUp to 90 days
LSD2-4 days6-12 hours1-3 daysUp to 90 days
MDMA (Ecstasy)2-4 days1-2 days1-3 daysUp to 90 days
Nicotine3-4 days1-3 days1-4 daysUp to 90 day
Please remember that these times when drugs can be found are estimates and can change a lot based on things like how much you use, how often you use, how fast your body works, how big you are, and how sensitive the test is. Also, some drugs or the leftovers from them might be found for longer in certain parts of the body, especially in hair tests, which might show drug use for a few months.

How long is the drug and alcohol test valid for?

The validity of a drug and alcohol test depends on the specific use case- why it’s done and the rules of the workplace (body) doing it.

There are two main things to think about:

  1. Scientific Validity (Does It Work Right?): This is about how long the test can find drugs or alcohol in the sample (like pee, blood, or hair). Remember what we said earlier about how long different tests can find traces.
  2. Policy Validity (Does It Count?): This is decided by who is doing the test, like your employer or the government. They determine how long a test result is good for what they need.

Here’s a closer look at these things:

  1. Does It Work Right?: Like we said before, how long a test finds drugs or alcohol changes based on what it is and how it’s done. For example, a urine test might find alcohol for up to 24 hours, but a blood test might only find it for 6-12 hours.
  2. Does It Count?: There isn’t a set rule for how long a test result is good for. Your boss might say a drug test for a new job is good for a week, but the government might say it’s good for 30 days.

Here’s how you can find out how long a test result is good for:

  • If it’s for a job, check the company’s rules or ask the Human Resources team about it.
  • If it’s for something else, ask the people in charge of the test about their rules.

Remember, even if a test can still find drugs or alcohol after the time it’s supposed to be good for, it probably won’t be used. That is because it might not show if you’re still affected by drugs or alcohol.

Things that influence how long it takes for alcohol to leave your body

The time it takes for alcohol to leave your body depends on a few things such as body composition, gender, metabolism, food in the stomach, hydration, medication and overall health.

Infographic shows the factors that could affect how long alcohol will stay in your system.
Infographic shows factors that determine when alcohol will leave the body system.

We listed 10 factors that determines how long alcohol will leave your body:

  1. How Much You Drink:

The more you drink, the longer it takes for your body to deal with it. Your liver can only handle about one standard drink per hour.

  1. Body Fat:

If you have more body fat, alcohol sticks around longer. Fat holds onto alcohol more than muscles because it has less water.

  1. How Fast You Metabolise:

Your metabolism matters. Quick metabolisms process alcohol faster than slow ones.

  1. Gender:

Women usually process alcohol slower than men because of differences like having less body water.

  1. Age:

Getting older can mean your liver works slower, slowing down how your body handles alcohol.

  1. Food:

Having food in your stomach can slow down the absorption of alcohol into the bloodstream, potentially extending the time it takes for your body to eliminate it.

  1. Medications:

Some medicines can mix with alcohol, affecting how your body deals with it. Check with your doctor if you take meds and plan to drink.

  1. Hydration:

Being thirsty slows down alcohol leaving your body. Drinking lots of water helps your body get rid of alcohol faster.

  1. General Health:

If you have health issues, especially with your liver, it can affect how long it takes to deal with alcohol.

  1. Genetics:

Your genes can play a role in how fast your body breaks down alcohol.


But generally, it might take about 2 hours for your body to deal with 2 units of alcohol.

So, after 2 hours, your Blood Alcohol Concentration (BAC) would likely be almost zero, if you haven’t had any more alcohol and the things we mentioned earlier don’t make a big difference to how fast your body deals with it.

Here are some things to think about:

  • This is just a guess. It might take longer or shorter for different people.
  • Even if your BAC is zero after 2 hours, you might still feel drunk, like feeling tired or not thinking straight.
  • The rules about how much you can drink and drive change depending on where you are. You should never guess if you’re okay to drive – it’s best to be sure.

Remember: This information is just general knowledge. Don’t use it to decide if you’re okay to drive. It’s safer to be careful and avoid driving or using machines if you’ve been drinking. Check out alcohol impair driving using this resources.

In the United Kingdom, there are laws like the Data Protection Act, the Human Rights Act, and the Health and Safety at Work Act that govern drug and alcohol testing.

Employers need a good reason, like keeping the workplace safe or following industry rules, to do tests.

They also have to do tests the right way, respect workers’ privacy, and help anyone with drug or alcohol problems.

Understanding UK Law:

In the UK, employers have the right to conduct drug and alcohol testing in the workplace, but they must do so within a legal framework.

The rules for testing people for drugs and alcohol at work are explained in these places:

  • Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS): The body helps with fair and sensible drug and alcohol tests at work. They make sure everyone agrees to the tests, maintains confidentiality, and decides fair punishments.
  • Misuse of Drugs Act 1971: This law says what drugs are illegal and what happens if someone has or sells them.
  • Human Rights Act 1998: This law protects people’s right to privacy and fair treatment. It makes sure tests are fair and don’t treat anyone unfairly.

Employer and Employee Rights:

  • Employers: Can make rules about drugs and alcohol, do tests for good reasons, and give fair punishments if someone breaks the rules.

Employers can make rules about testing for drugs and alcohol to keep work safe and make sure everyone can work well.

But they have to follow ACAS rules and obey the law.

However, they must follow ACAS guidelines and comply with relevant laws.

Employers should also give info and help to workers who might have problems with drugs or alcohol.

  • Employees: Workers can ask about the testing rules and how tests are done. They can say no to a test but might face disciplinary panel. If they think tests are unfair or treat them badly, they can speak up about it.

Workers have the right to confidentiality and should know how tests work, what happens if they test positive, and where to get help.

They can also question the results and get a lawyer if they think their rights were ignored.

Workplace Drug and Alcohol Testing

Many employers do drug and alcohol tests at work to keep everyone safe and manage risks.

They might do tests in these situations:

  1. Before hiring: Checking job applicants to make sure they’re safe to work and don’t use drugs.
  2. Random checks: Testing workers without warning to stop drug or alcohol use and find any problems.
  3. If they suspect something: Testing workers if they think they might be using drugs or alcohol because of how they act or how they work.
  4. After accidents or incidents: Testing workers involved in accidents or problems at work to see if drugs or alcohol were involved.
  5. When workers come back: Testing workers who finish programs for substance abuse and come back to work. They might do more tests later to make sure they stay sober.

Employers need to make clear rules about drug and alcohol tests, what they look for, what happens if someone tests positive, and where workers can get help.

They should also teach workers about not using drugs or alcohol and why it is important to keep work safe and get things done.


Testing for drugs and alcohol at work is a tricky issue with many sides.

It is meant to keep work safe and stop people from using drugs, but there’s a lot to think about, like the law, what’s right, and how tests work.

By knowing about the different ways to test, what they can find, and the rules, employers and workers can make good choices and keep to legal rules.

Knowing the facts and following the rules, both the employers and workers can talk about this topic in a fair and sensible way.

Remember, drug and alcohol tests are just one part of making work healthy and safe. By talking openly, teaching people, and giving help when needed, companies can make a place where everyone feels safe, responsible, and well.

Please note: This blog post is just for giving information and isn’t legal advice. If you have questions about the law and testing for drugs and alcohol at work, it’s best to talk to legal experts.

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