Feel Good Hit of the Summer

15 Sep

Last week Robert Chapple posted an excellent guest post by Stuart Rathbone on working conditions in archaeology (there’s an interesting Facebook discussion on it here). Predominantly focussed on the Republic of Ireland, it builds on personal experience and surveys of the profession (i.e. McDermott and La Piscopia 2008) to debate a wide range of issues (pretty much all of which will be recognisable  to UK archaeologists).

I found myself agreeing with much of what Stuart wrote, except for one point: drugs.


Approximately two thirds of the way through the blog is the following paragraph:

Whilst it may be easy to make a few jokes about archaeologists being drunken dope smoking loons, it does a serious disservice to the actual situation…Dope smoking may be becoming ever more socially acceptable, but at the same time it is becoming abundantly clear that it can cause serious psychosis and trigger latent mental illnesses, including bi-polar disorders, especially given the strength of the new hybrid strains of weed

(Emphasis mine)

I’m not comfortable with this statement (partially as it sounds too similar to Gordon Brown, the Coalition, the Daily Mail and Brass Eye) because potency studies suggests a much more complex and nuanced picture (see for instance McLaren et al. 2008: 1100). Regular testing of cannabis since the 1970s has indeed shown an increasing overall strength, but that appears linked to the decline in popularity low THC resins (UNDOC 2005; Korf et al. 2007: 168) and an increase in ‘locally’ grown (i.e. fresher) marijuana / skunk (Sevigny 2013).

The effects of cannabis on the brain are less complex: no one would take it if it didn’t have any. As with any drug the effects are not always good (see Di Forti et al. 2009 for the article on cannabis and psychosis or this very good summary). It’s also true that there is some evidence suggesting cannabis can cause a drop in IQ (Lowry 2013) [1], but then so can poverty (Lobello 2013). I feel that poverty, being linked to many of the issues Stuart talks about, should be the main issue we seek to tackle within our profession.


Building on this theme Stuart suggests that the archaeological profession should look to the widespread adoption of random drug testing to emulate (and be accepted by) the construction sector:

Archaeological employers should expect a more professional attitude from the workforce and, in line with the construction industry, could perhaps start enforcing random drink and drug tests. 

Personally I have always been doubtful of the effectiveness of drugs testing. One of the earliest sections of society to feel the impact of an random tests were prisoners [2]. The effects? Usage of Class A’s skyrocketed (Harris 2002) as they tend to remain in the system for a much shorter time. I am not suggesting that archaeologists are about to switch to crack, but that there does seem something inherently unfair in a testing régime that can – if it chooses – treat heroin and cannabis on the same level in disciplinary matters.

Personal feelings aren’t enough though when there may be a genuine opportunity to improve site health and safety. So I went and had a look at some of the research on the issue to discover if  there was any evidence that random drug testing makes work environments safer.

The companies who perform testing for the UK construction industry (such as Randox Testing ServicesScreenSafe and On Site Health Services) certainly seem to think they have evidence on their side, with many stating on their websites that ‘nearly one in seven workers in the construction industry has a serious alcohol problem” as a way to justify the product. Unfortunately not one company can be bothered to cite the source [3].

We can overlook this though, because there is one statistic these companies are often happy to cite: a study which determined that construction companies using random drugs testing  had 51% decline in injury incident rates (Gerber and Yacoubian 2001).

Pretty conclusive?


Further research has suggested significant methodological flaws in this study;  from treating  all forms of testing as the same (Morantz and Mas 2008: 252), failing to document any other safety programs that may have acted as a confounding variable and relying solely on a self selecting sample that risked excluding any companies which experienced a decline in accidents and did not test or did not feel testing was responsible (Macdonald et al. 2010: 413).

In contrast a well cited meta-analysis with a robust methodology (Macdonald 1997) found that:

Evaluation studies have not shown that either drug or alcohol testing significantly reduces work injuries/accidents. Other types of scientific evidence provide some justification of alcohol testing, but not for other drug testing. Alcohol use is much more common than other drug use in industrialized countries, suggesting that alcohol may be more related to industrial accidents than other drugs…..Finally, alcohol testing is more justifiable than drug testing because the results of alcohol tests closely correlate with psycho-motor performance while drug tests do not.

So there is a case for alcohol testing, but little evidence that random drug testing has any effect on safety in the workplace [4]. In reality only one form of drugs testing appears to have been validated as having a positive effect on workplace safety: post-accident/incident testing (Feinauer and Havlovic 1993).


Random drugs testing does not occur in a moral or ethical vacuum.  A detailed literature review by Comer (2000) (quoted here at length due to the number of interesting studies cited) found numerous ethical issues with serious implications for staff morale:

…the inability of drug tests to determine impairment, testing has raised moral questions. Specifically, it has been argued that even if employees are using drugs, so long as they perform responsibly their organizations need not know about their drug use, and that if employees’ performance is compromised by drugs, employers may rightfully discipline or dismiss them, but still do not need to know the root of their impeded performance (DesJardins and Duska, 1987). Many have criticized drug testing for intruding on employee privacy (see, for example, Caste, 1992; Flaig, 1990; Haas, 1990; Hanson, 1988; Lewis, 1990; Maltby, 1990; Orentlicher, 1990; Pavlovich, 1989). Indeed, research suggests that drug testing may especially lead to negative attitudes and behaviors when it is perceived as invasive (Hanson, 1990; Latessa et al., 1988; Masters et al., 1988; Murphy et al., 1991; Murphy et al., 1990; Smith, 1988; Stecher and Ross, 1992; Stone and Kotch, 1989; Stone and Vine, 1989).

Because there is considerable evidence that drug testing can have a potentially negative impact on employees’ attitudes and behaviors, and that it cannot detect impaired performance, its usefulness as a management tool is arguable. Some have asserted that workplace drug testing prevails in the United States–despite the absence of evidence of its usefulness for enhancing safety and productivity–for sociopolitical and symbolic reasons, rather than rational practical ones (see Borg and Arnold, 1997; Cavanaugh and Prasad, 1994; Guthrie and Olian, 1991; Karper et al., 1994; Thompson et al., 1991; Wisotsky, 1987; Zimmer and Jacobs, 1992)

(Studies cited in the above quote are listed in a separate bibliography for ease of viewing)

So in summary:

  • Random alcohol testing (i.e. a breathalyzer) does improve safety.
  • Random drugs testing does not.
  • Only post-incident drugs testing appears to have a genuine impact.
  • Random drugs testing can have a serious impact on workplace morale and is ethically questionable.

With current evidence apparently conclusive that random testing is ineffective one has to wonder why construction firms (such as Balfour Beatty and BAM, Ferrovial and Kier) are so invested in it. Is it ideological? Wisotsky – writing a year after Reagan and Bush publicly took tests as part of the War on Drugs –  certainly believed so, stating that “drug testing as an indicator of impairment is so tenuous that it must be understood as an ideological initiative intended to stigmatize non-conformity and coerce conformity” (1987: 764). More recently the philosopher A.C. Grayling declared that, where substance use affected no one else, drug testing at work “offends against some of the fundamental principles that undergird a liberal-democratic society” (Roberts et al. 2004: 28).

These are pertinent points to consider in a construction industry that has, at times, had a tenuous grasp of the morals and laws of wider society (i.e. the blacklisting of workers over health and safety issues). Can we fully trust these companies to be the gendarmerie of our private lives?

Stuart makes many excellent suggestions on how we can progress as a profession, but I disagree that emulating random testing should be part of this. If we adopt it as a sector wide position we cast aside a large body of research and put our safety in the hands of an unverified ideological position. We potentially place ourselves as foot soldiers on the losing side of a decades old war.

In developing the profession we need to carefully consider exactly what professionalism is and what we want from it. Should we simply echo the values of our larger partners or develop our own values and outlook?


[1] it’s worth noting that this research is focussed on the damage potentially caused in late adolescence, i.e. beyond the age when many archaeologists enter the workforce. If you consider this a serious issue then you would need to target potential archaeologists at the age of 16, not 26. It is also worth noting that the level of hospital admissions related to cannabis psychosis appear to be closely related to the classification of the drug (Hamilton et al. 2013) suggesting a significant sociological factor.

[2] This is not to suggest that construction sites are like prisons, but there are potential analogies between them and societies of control (Deleuze 1992).

[3] The closest result I could find for this figure comes from a 2008 George Washington University study of the US construction/mining  workforce that suggested 14.7% (slightly over 1 in 7) had heavy alcohol use. As some of you may have noticed these figures are from a different country on a different continent, consequently one might question the validity of their application to the UK.

[4] We are not talking about intoxicated people in the workplace being given a free pass, being high or drunk on site should always be a red card issue.


Deleuze, G. 1992: Postscript on the Societies of Control. October 59: 3-7.

Di Forti, M., Morgan, C. and Dazzan, P. et al. 2009: High-potency cannabis and the risk of psychosis. The British Journal of Psychiatry. 195: 488-491. Accessible online at http://bjp.rcpsych.org/content/195/6/488

Feinauer, D. M., and Havlovic, S. J. 1993: Drug testing as a strategy to reduce occupational accidents: A longitudinal analysis. Journal of Safety Research 24 (1): 1–7. Available online at: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/002243759390046P

Gerber, J. and Yacoubian Jr., G. 2001: Evaluation of Drug Testing in the Workplace: Study of the Construction Industry. Journal of Construction Engineering and Management 127 (6): 438–444. Available online at: http://dx.doi.org/10.1061/(ASCE)0733-9364(2001)127:6(438)

Hamilton, I., Lloyd, C., Hewitt, C. and  GodfreyC. 2013: Effect of reclassification of cannabis on hospital admissions for cannabis psychosis: A time series analysis. International Journal of Drug Policy (published online 17 July 2013).  Available online at: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S095539591300090X

Harris, P. 2002. Drug testing is driving prisoners to heroin. The Guardian Friday 4 October. Accessible online at http://www.theguardian.com/society/2002/oct/04/publicvoices.

Korf, D.J., Benschop, A. and Wouters, M. 2007: Differential responses to cannabis potency: A typology of users based on self-reported consumption behaviour. International Journal of Drug Policy 18 (3): 168-176.

Lobello, C. 2013: Poverty weighs on the mind more than you might think. The Week September 4th 2013. Accessible online at http://theweek.com/article/index/249149/how-being-poor-can-lower-your-iq.

Lowry, F. 2013: Conference News: Cannabis Use in Teens Linked to Irreparable Drop in IQ. Medscape Medical News. Accessible online at http://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/803197.

McLaren, J., Swift, W., Dillon, P. and Allsop, S. 2008: Cannabis potency and contamination: a review of the literature. Addiction 103: 1100–1109. Accessible online at: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1360-0443.2008.02230.x/abstract

MacDonald,S. 1997: Work-place alcohol and other drug testing: A review of the scientific evidence. Drug and Alcohol Review 16 (3): 251-259. Available at http://informahealthcare.com/doi/abs/10.1080/09595239800187431

Macdonald, S., Hall, W., Roman, P., Stockwell, T., Coghlan, M. and Nesvaag, S. 2010: Testing for cannabis in the work-place: a review of the evidence. Addiction 105: 408–416. Available at: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1360-0443.2009.02808

McDermott, C. and La Piscopia, P. 2008: Discovering the archaeologists of Europe: Ireland. Dublin: The Institute of Archaeologists of Ireland. Available at: http://www.iai.ie/index.php/publications/reports.html

Morantz, A.D. and Mas, A. 2008: Does Post-Accident Drug Testing Reduce Injuries? Evidence from a Large Retail Chain. American Law & Economics Review 10(2): 246-302. Available online at: http://www.princeton.edu/~amas/papers/246.full.pdf

Roberts, M., Evans, R., Burgin, Y. and De Rosas, V. 2004: Drug testing in the workplace: The report of the independent inquiry into drug testing at work. York: Joseph Rowntree Foundation. Available online at: http://www.jrf.org.uk/sites/files/jrf/185935212x.pdf

Sevigny, E. L. 2013: Is today’s marijuana more potent simply because it’s fresher? Drug Test Analysis 5: 62–67. Available at: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/dta.1430/

UNODC. 2005: World drug report 2005. Vienna: UNODC. Available at: http://www.unodc.org/unodc/en/data-and-analysis/WDR-2005.html

Wisotsky, S. 1987: The Ideology of Drug Testing. Nova Law Review 11: 763-778. Available online at: http://heinonline.org/HOL/Page?handle=hein.journals/novalr11&collection=journals&index=&id=781


Borg, M.J. and W.P. Arnold, III. 1997. “Social Monitoring as Social Control: The Case of Drug Testing in a Medical Workplace.” Sociological Forum 12: 441-460.

Cavanaugh, J.M. and P. Prasad. 1994. “Drug Testing as Symbolic Managerial Action: A Response to ‘A Case against Workplace Drug Testing’.” Organization Science 5: 267-271.

Caste, NJ. 1992. “Drug Testing and Productivity.” Journal of Business Ethics 11: 301-306.

DesJardins, J. and R. Duska. 1987. “Drug Testing in Employment.” Business & Professional Ethics Journal 6:3-21.

Flaig, J.M. 1990. “Preserving Employee Rights during the War on Drugs.” Pacific Law Journal 21: 995-1033.

Guthrie, J.P. and J.D. Olian. 1991. “Drug and Alcohol Testing Programs: Do Firms Consider Their Operating Environments?” Human Resource Planning 14: 221-232.

Haas, K.C. 1990. “The Supreme Court Enters the “Jar Wars”: Drug Testing, Public Employees, and the Fourth Amendment.” Dickinson Law Review 94: 305-371.

Hanson, F.A. 1988. “Some Social Implications of Drug Testing.” The University of Kansas Law Review 36: 899-917.

Hanson, F.A. 1990. “What Employees Say about Drug Testing.” Personnel 67: 32-36.

Karper, M.D., C.B. Donn and M.E. Lyndaker. 1994. “Drug Testing in the Transportation Industry: The Maritime Case.” Employee Responsibilities and Rights Journal 7: 219-233.

Latessa, E.J., L.F. Travis and F.T. Cullen. 1988. “Public Support for Mandatory Drug Testing in the Workplace.” Crime and Delinquency 34: 379-392.

Lewis, A. 1990. “Drug Testing: Can Privacy Interests be Protected under the “Special Needs” Doctrine?” Brooklyn Law Review 56: 1013-1044.

Maltby, L.L. 1990. “Put Performance to the Test.” Personnel 67: 30-31.

Masters, M.F., G.R. Ferris and S.L. Ratcliff. 1988. “Practice and Attitudes of Substance Abuse Testing.” Personnel Administrator 33: 72-78.

Murphy, K.R., G.C. Thornton and K. Prue. 1991. “Influence of Job Characteristics on the Acceptability of Employee Drug Testing.” Journal of Applied Psychology 76: 447-453.

Murphy, K.R. and D.H. Reynolds. 1990. “College Students’ Attitudes toward Employee Drug Testing Programs.” Personnel Psychology 43: 615-631.

Orentlicher, D. 1990. “Drug Testing of Physicians.” JAMA 264 (August 22/29): 1039-1040.

Pavlovich, J.S. 1989. “Just Say Yes to Drug-testing Legislation: The Skinner and Von Raab Decisions.” DePaul Law Review 39: 161-198.

Smith, B. 1988. “Employee-supported Drug Testing.” Personnel Journal: 134-137.

Stecher, M.D. and J.G. Ross. 1992. “Attitudes toward Random Drug Testing in the Aviation Industry.” Paper presented at the Annual Conference of the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology, Montreal.

Stone, D.L. and D.A. Kotch. 1989. “Individuals’ Attitudes toward Organizational Drug Testing Policies and Practices.” Journal of Applied Psychology 74: 518-521.

Stone, D.L. and P.L. Vine. 1989. “Some Procedural Determinants of Attitudes toward Drug Testing.” Paper presented at the Annual Conference of the Society for Industrial/Organizational Psychology, Boston, MA.

Thompson, F.J., N.M. Riccucci and C. Ban. 1991. “Drug Testing in the Federal Workplace: An Instrumental and Symbolic Assessment.” Public Administration Review 51: 515-525.

Wisotsky, S. 1987. “The Ideology of Drug Testing.” Nova Law Review 11: 763-778.

Zimmer, L. and J.B. Jacobs. 1992. “The Business of Drug Testing: Technological Innovation and Social Control.” Contemporary Drug Problems (Spring): 1-26.

7 Responses to “Feel Good Hit of the Summer”

  1. Robert M Chapple September 15, 2013 at 10:57 pm #

    Hi Matt,
    Wonderful post! Thanks so much for taking the time to write such a detailed and well-researched rebuttal on this point. I’ve added a link to here on the original post!


    • Matt Nicholas September 15, 2013 at 11:12 pm #

      Hi Robert,

      Cheers, glad you like it :)
      It was originally going to be a comment on your blog, but it became so damn long!


  2. These Bones Of Mine September 15, 2013 at 11:20 pm #

    What a great post and incredibly well cited, thank you!

    • Matt Nicholas September 15, 2013 at 11:22 pm #

      Thank you :)

      • These Bones Of Mine September 15, 2013 at 11:33 pm #

        My pleasure! I am constantly amazed by the quality of many archaeological focused blogs online, and your site today was a fantastic find. Definitely look forward to reading more of your work and the issues you raise. Once again, thank you!

  3. Stuart Rathbone September 16, 2013 at 1:27 am #

    Hi Matt, again, complements on your excellent and detailed response to my piece. I would say that I don’t necessarily agree with everything I wrote in that article either! For instance I’m a notorious chain smoker and would find an onsite smoking ban a real pain in the ass, and something that I would suspect would have little positive affect other than for the sake of a more professional appearance. However I do think these are all things we need to discuss, so again thanks for your challenging response.

    The rise in drink and drug testing is part of a great increase in safety regulations on construction sites, and I suspect it would be hard to isolate which of the whole raft of measures tried are working. During various H&S courses I have been told repeatedly that there has been a considerable decrease in serious accidents on construction sites due to this raft of legislation, codes of practice etc. If the ‘hit it with everything’ approach isn’t massively scientific it does seem at least to have been effective.

    Where I work currently there are 1500 or so people on site and about 10% are subject to a random drink and drugs test each week. There is an onsite bar in the accommodation block but it sells no spirits. Drugs dogs are regularly posted at both the accommodation block and the on site canteen. Many people have failed these tests and have lost their jobs; any drugs offences are also reported to the local police. This is in every way imaginable an oppressive work regime. At the same time it is a very large and complicated construction project and there is an awful lot of extremely heavy machinery on site. I’m quite happy with the arrangements on this site, I certainly feel safer on site knowing they are at least attempting to control drink and drug consumption among the construction crew.

    I wouldn’t really want to get into a discussion on the effects/harm/benefits of narcotics here, other than to say If you have been up all night getting wasted on drink, drugs or a combined approach, you are clearly going to feel the after effects the next day, and maybe for several days afterwards. You say “We are not talking about intoxicated people in the workplace being given a free pass, being high or drunk on site should always be a red card issue.” But where do you draw the line on after affects? We all know hangovers mess you up. Come Downs can range in effect from inattention and tiredness to much more serious states of exhaustion and dislocation.

    Your point about the tests being inversely sensitive to the strength of drugs is correct. There are also issues with non prescription remedies giving readings that can be mistaken for illegal drugs under cheaper forms of testing regime. Hair tests apparently give an approximate date of when substances have been consumed so perhaps there is a case for ensuring the most appropriate types of tests are being used.

    You have highlighted some serious doubts about the effectiveness and morality of drink and drug testing regimes. Fair enough. But these are becoming a more common part of the construction industry and archaeologists are not going to get a ‘free pass’ on this issue. If we want to be treated like proper specialist sub contractors, and attract the pay levels we deserve, I suspect we will have to accept this as an increasing part of our reality. Even if these tests are proven ineffective, and it could be proven that hash, or ecstasy or even coke really had no effect on your safety at work, it would still prove very difficult to argue against such regimes if they are part of a contract. How do you word it? “Sorry our staff will not be subjecting themselves to your drink and drugs testing regimes because…”

    Indeed it’s true that testing may owe more to moral panic than to scientific research (and this unsurprisingly in that regard stuff is already really wide spread in US Archaeology) but it sure does seem to be a hard tactic to counter. Is this where archaeologists need to draw the line in the sand? I feel that if a line does need to be drawn in the sand it should be drawn somewhere else and for much more important reasons. However so far contract staff in both Ireland and the UK have largely found themselves unable to make a stand about anything much at all really.

    • Matt Nicholas September 16, 2013 at 8:07 pm #

      Hi Stuart,

      I’ve not had a chance to get together a proper reply to the points you raise yet (it’s turned out to be a much busier day than planned), so I just wanted to say thank you for your comment. I’ll get a proper reply together tomorrow, look forward to continuing the conversation :)

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