July 17, 2024

A Network Rail safety worker who accidentally ingested cocaine has won his case for unfair dismissal, but the judge has slammed him for not checking the ingredients.

Paul Glenholmes ingested the class A drug through a traditional South American drink that he was taking to aid with digestion, an employment tribunal heard.

The train worker told the hearing he knew it was not ‘ordinary green tea’ but insisted he was unaware of the ingredients, having purchased it from a market stall in a packet with no label.

Mr Glenholmes failed a drug test and was fired after being told by a testing laboratory ‘drinking cocaine in tea does not make it legal’.

The ruling came following a three-day hearing in October. But the worker was slammed for not checking the ingredients (stock photo)

The ruling came following a three-day hearing in October. But the worker was slammed for not checking the ingredients (stock photo)

The East Midlands tribunal heard Mr Glenholmes started work as an on-train technician, a health and safety role, at Network Rail in 2014 (stock photo)

The East Midlands tribunal heard Mr Glenholmes started work as an on-train technician, a health and safety role, at Network Rail in 2014 (stock photo)

It has been ruled following a three-day hearing at a Midlands East tribunal in October that he was unfairly dismissed due to Network Rail following the wrong disciplinary procedure.

But because Mr Glenholmes did not check what the drink contained, the judge imposed a 100 per cent reduction of his basic and compensatory awards.

Employment judge Martin Brewer said: ‘The claimant’s compensatory award shall be nil because it is not just and equitable to award him compensation, or alternatively the compensation should be reduced by 100 per cent to reflect his contributory conduct.’

The East Midlands tribunal heard Mr Glenholmes started work as an on-train technician, a health and safety role, at Network Rail in 2014.

The rail operator has a strict drug policy that states if employees test positive for substances such as cocaine, they should be suspended with immediate effect.

The tribunal heard Mr Glenholmes was on prescribed medication for a disability which caused him indigestion.

In early September 2020, he purchased what he referred to as Inka Tea from a market stall to alleviate this discomfort.

Inka tea, also known as coca tea and mate tea, is a herbal infusion made using the raw or dried leaves of the coca plant which is native to South America.

Not knowing what was in the product, the Network Rail safety worker consumed the drink and said it worked almost immediately to relieve his digestion issue.

It was heard he continued to use the tea thereafter and weeks later, Mr Glenholmes, who was given eight weeks’ notice, was subject to a drug and alcohol screening test.

Mr Glenholmes tested positive for benzoylecgonine which is the metabolite of cocaine routinely looked for in urine to establish that cocaine had recently been used.

Days later, the Network Rail employee was suspended and an investigation commenced.

After researching the Inka tea, the safety worker told bosses that this was the likely cause of the failed test as he had not checked the ingredients before consuming it.

He told them: ‘Having the information and research which I now know, I would not have in good conscience bought the product or consumed it.’

Mr Glenholmes was invited to a disciplinary hearing on the basis that he had ‘knowingly ingested coca tea without understanding what it contained’.

However, citing ill health the safety worker informed bosses he would not be attending and he later raised a grievance for a lack of ‘due diligence’ by bosses when commencing the investigation.

After researching the Inka tea, the safety worker told bosses that this was the likely cause of the failed test as he had not checked the ingredients before consuming it (stock image)

After researching the Inka tea, the safety worker told bosses that this was the likely cause of the failed test as he had not checked the ingredients before consuming it (stock image) 

Months later, he asked for his urine sample to be re-tested and asked the laboratory how cocaine and coca tea can be differentiated so it would not happen again.

In response, they said the benzoylecgonine metabolite would be detected in both cases as it is an ingestion of cocaine.

The laboratory added: ‘This is because coca tea is made from coca plant leaves and contains cocaine. This means that Mr Glenholmes has used cocaine. Drinking cocaine in tea does not make it legal’

Mr Glenholmes’ re-test found the cocaine in his system was four times over the cut-off amount which is ‘consistent with misuse of a controlled drug’.

Nearly two years after the drug test, following a long period of sick leave, Mr Glenholmes’ disciplinary hearing was held and the safety worker was sacked.

Mr Glenholmes appealed this decision, which was rejected, and later took Network Rail to an employment tribunal to sue for unfair dismissal.

Giving evidence at the tribunal, Mr Glenholmes said he was aware the hot drink was not ‘ordinary green tea’, and that he consumed it without knowing what it contained.

Judge Brewer said by consuming the tea, there is ‘no doubt’ that Mr Glenholmes was ‘deserving of blame’.

He said: ‘I am in no doubt that he was entirely to blame for his dismissal.

‘He deliberately drank tea from South America without knowing, and not researching prior to drinking it, what it contained.’

Judge Brewer added: ‘Here Mr Glenholmes was wholly blameworthy.

‘There were no other contributing factors to his dismissal other than the failed drug test which he could have avoided if he had done the research he did after the failed drug test either before he drank the tea or shortly thereafter once he was aware of its efficacy.

‘But he chose not to.’

The judge said Mr Glenholmes ‘deliberately contradicted the terms’ of the company’s drug policy by ‘not finding out what he was ingesting when drinking tea from South America’.

He said his dismissal was ‘within the band of reasonable responses’ from Network Rail as Mr Glenholmes was ‘wholly to blame’.

However, procedural errors in sacking the Network Rail worker meant his claims of unfair dismissal succeeded.

As well as the judge denying him compensation, Mr Glenholmes’ additional claim of unauthorised deductions from wages was dismissed.

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