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The drugs don't work

21 May 2018

A few years back, most logistics companies would not have been aware of a ‘drug problem’ in the industry, but as awareness and testing increases, it simply cannot be ignored. In fact, drug use is simply the tip of the driver wellbeing iceberg, says Mike Colborne, compliance, safety & training manager at Owens Group.

Mike describes Owens Group as a typical logistics company in the sense that, a few years ago, it did not think drugs was a major issue.

But Owens won a major contract with a home delivery service and one of the pre-qualifiers was it had to start drug and alcohol testing employees.

“On the van side of the business, considering potential employees sent to us from Jobcentre Plus and similar, we had a huge failure rate at the beginning, probably 25%,” says Mike. “This is shocking for normal driver’s license holders never mind vocational. People were using recreational drugs and driving, and could see nothing wrong with it. It was mostly cannabis but we’ve had other illegal narcotics come up as well.” 

In response, Owens implemented a robust drug-testing regime and policy across the business. 

“Drug-testing is tied into the driver handbook and contract. We can test people pre-employment, randomly and post incident. This applies to every level of employee, not just drivers, forklift operators and warehouse staff, but also senior managers on site. If people refuse a test, it is treated the same as if they give a positive result.”

Conference to deliver expert advice
Following last year’s conference which was attended by over 150 delegates, the CILT Transport & Logistics Safety Forum Committee has announced this year’s conference will be held on Tuesday 6th November 2018.
The theme of the conference is Fit to drive and stay alive: Safeguarding our most valuable asset, and will look at the vitally important issues of mental health and driver well-being. With the average age of the industry's drivers continuing to increase, the health and well-being of our drivers need to be managed more robustly and empathetically.
CILT is lining up a diverse panel of expert speakers who are passionate about these issues, and will provide invaluable advice and best practice solutions.
The event will be hosted by Transport for London at 5 Endeavour Square, Stratford, London E20 1HZ. 
The conference will be: Members: Free; Non-Members: £25 or £52 to include 12 months CILT eMembership.
A number of exhibitor stands will be available, full details to be communicated in due course.
To pre-register your interest in attending, or for further information, please contact Ana Walker at

A positive result does not necessarily mean dismissal for employees. Owens Group has helped staff come to terms with drug problems. 

At one of its depots, two forklift drivers tested positive, but they immediately made full admissions that they were habitual users of marijuana and they would like help. So rather than go through the full disciplinary process, Owens allowed them to take sick leave and get help.

“Further down the line, they passed the tests and were re-integrated into the company,” says Mike. “Why lose a good person because they are having difficulties? We are happy to help people out. But they must want to be helped, of course.”

The use of drugs is simply one strand in an increasingly important and complex web of issues surrounding driver well-being. It puts considerable onus on managers at logistics firms, particularly at a time when driver retention and recruitment is already an acute problem. 

“A draconian approach is never going to help,” explains Mike. “Sometimes an arm round the shoulder gets you so much further. If people are having mental health issues, for example, a charity like Mind is a big help. Equally, we can change shift patterns if drivers have family problems.”

Vans stolen as Amazon deliveries targeted

Owens Group suffered an attack on one of the delivery vans it operates as part of its Amazon contract.

Mike Colborne, compliance, safety & training manager at Owens Group, explains: “One issue we’ve had with Amazon deliveries is drivers being attacked and vans stolen. The Christmas before last we had a driver bundled into the back of his own van while thieves took his mobile phone and keys off him. 

“They drove off and threw him out of the van in an isolated place so he couldn’t call the police. He had to run to where he had made a delivery and ask to use the phone.”

Owens Group tracks its vans, so was able to locate it and feed information to the Police.

Mike continues: “We have taken Owens and Amazon logos off vans to try to reduce easy recognition. In addition, at Peak times, in certain areas, we unfortunately have to double up on the vans, so the driver doesn’t get out, he stays with the locked van while a colleague carries out the delivery.”

Issues can extend from logistics operations into legal considerations.

Part of the Sheriff’s verdict on the ‘Glasgow bin lorry’ case, which resulted in six fatalities, was that a company can’t negate responsibility because they’ve let an employee go.

Mike says: “If you simply sack someone, in a way you are offloading the problem. The driver may go somewhere else. Where do we stand morally if they then have a catastrophic event? If someone doesn’t want help, and we had to let them go, we would have to write to the Traffic Commissioner. I don’t think I’d feel happy if I didn’t.”

On the other side, with data protection laws, companies are restricted. Even if new prospective employers ask, firms have to be careful in terms of what they can and cannot say.

Mike explains: “The drug test is 99,9% accurate, but until it goes to the laboratory for a confirmation its a ‘non-negative’ result, it’s not technically a positive. 

“But if someone has left employment, we wouldn’t spend that money on the back-end to confirm the result. In this circumstance, all we could say is ‘under no circumstances would we re-employ this person’.”

There is a clear need for education in the industry, and fortunately, many logistics firms are gathering together to talk about these topics and share best practice. A great example of this is the CILT Transport & Logistics Safety Forum. The Forum is putting together a conference programme focused on driver well-being in November (See box).

Mike is an active member of the Forum and says: “At Owens we have an open door policy with employees, and we have no problem sharing what we have learned with the wider industry. The most valuable asset is the driver. We have an ageing population and the personal and mental health of drivers isn’t always as good as it could be. For example, if a driver has worries, he or she can be nine hours alone stewing in a cab, and can feel isolated. We need to be sensitive to these issues.”

Owens has partnerships with occupational health practitioners, so if drivers are struggling, it will get them checked out at no cost to them, at a time that suits them. It’s not just about helping the driver, it builds driver loyalty too, which is an obvious benefit to the haulier.