Union chiefs have told this newspaper that the Yorkshire Ambulance Service (YAS) NHS Trust is now in talks to change its self-regulating stance on the issue, in a bid to win a lucrative patient transport service contract covering the whole of South Yorkshire.
While bus and train drivers are subjected to drug or alcohol tests, paramedics at YAS and similar NHS trusts are currently not.
Public service union Unison has warned that despite ongoing discussions, the introduction of the new testing policy could be inevitable.
Bryn Webster, the union’s branch secretary, said: “We are between a rock and a hard place.
“We don’t agree with random drug testing, but we are going to have to concede that they are going to bring it in without our consent. I believe this will be the first ambulance trust in the country to have random drug and alcohol testing.”
He said the South Yorkshire patient transport contract would be worth hundreds of jobs, but that a requirement of the contract was for random testing to be introduced to the workforce.In a statement, YAS said it is currently “looking to introduce a Fitness for Work Policy”, but declined to comment on either the contract stipulations, or whether it intends to bring in random testing.
Mr Webster said: “There is no way that we can fight against it if there is the potential for losing jobs. We are in discussions to make the policy more palatable by reducing the percentage of tests and structure of the testing procedure.”
He said the new testing policy could be brought in by the end of this month.
One source told The Yorkshire Post the tests were being introduced because of concerns that some staff members at the trust could be using drugs or alcohol “as a prop” at work.Mr Webster added: “Due to the stresses and strains of the job, the trust needs to understand that people might be driven to drink.
“Maybe they should sit down and think about the causes of this rather than looking at drug and alcohol testing. The job is getting more and more stressful so these problems will happen.”
A spokesperson for YAS said: “In common with a number of large public and private sector organisations, YAS is looking to introduce a Fitness for Work Policy as part of its commitment to the wellbeing of its staff. This includes ensuring that any alcohol and drug-related issues are dealt with effectively and consistently and that managers have adequate training and support to deal with staff who are seeking help.
“The Trust views alcohol and drug dependency as an illness and seeks to support anyone who may be affected. We are yet to agree specific details on how the policy will be implemented.”
'Against in principle'
Unite the union, which also represents ambulance workers, said it was against the move in principle.
Terry Cunliffe, regional officer at Unite in Yorkshire, said: “Our members don’t want to work alongside someone who is under the influence of drink or drugs when they are driving an ambulance.
There are better ways of doing it than random drug testing. I have no examples in health where it works.” He said the service currently operates a self-regulating procedure, where staff report instances of drugs or alcohol in the workplace. Mr Cunliffe added: “I don’t want anything that compromises patient safety or care, but testing needs to be fair.”