Recent Australian research reveals the influence of drugs and alcohol on workers is far more widespread than once believed. Alan Johnson reports.
Manufacturers who think drugs or alcohol use is not an issue in their workplace are fooling themselves, as recent studies clearly show. The Australian Drug Foundation estimates that alcohol and drugs are costing Australian workplaces $6 billion a year in lost productivity, with millions of workdays lost annually.
Research by the National Centre for Education and Training on Addiction (NCETA), reveals that 2.5 per cent of the workforce report going to work under the influence of illicit drugs, with tradespeople and unskilled workers having the highest prevalence compared with professionals and managers.
In fact, amphetamine usage is 4 per cent higher for employees in the manufacturing industry than the total workforce average.
But it’s the drug “ice” (methamphetamine), with its destructive side effects, that has organisations worried. Weekly usage amongst employees who reported using the drug in the last 12 months was 17 per cent higher for workers in the manufacturing industry.
The NCETA research shows that drug usage is more prevalent for workers aged between 18 and 29 years of age, with male workers in the manufacturing industry more predominant users at 4.8 per cent as opposed to 3 per cent of female workers.
Leanne Cruden, Ai Group’s Principal Adviser – Workplace Relations, Safety & Workers’ Compensation, admitted drugs and alcohol use in the workplace is a problem that is not going away.
“However, the extent of the issue is becoming better understood, with the release of more and more data,” Cruden told Manufacturers’ Monthly.
When it comes to identifying whether or not an employee is affected, Cruden said it’s important to firstly assess whether the signs are from a genuine illness or injury, or are symptoms from taking prescription medicine, which can be very similar to those from alcohol or illicit substance abuse.
“It is important that employers are aware that there can be more than one reason for a workers’ abnormal behaviour.”
She said this behaviour might include a person being involved in a near miss incident, violence in the workplace, someone being habitually late or frequently absent from work.
“This behaviour could also be interpersonal problems in the workplace arising from the person, or could be factors such as poor coordination or the person appearing to have difficulty concentrating.”
Cruden says the problems that drugs or alcohol in the workplace can cause include a safety risk to the worker, co-workers and the public in some cases.
“There can also be potential business risks, for example someone who is processing transactions might be under the influence and cause errors which could result in a business loss.
“Workers who are under the influence, and in external facing positions and are acting in an unpredictable or volatile manner, can also impact on client relationships.
“Damaging work relationships is another big area, where someone is abusive or threatening to fellow co-workers,” Cruden said.
Having an employee in the workplace affected by drugs or alcohol can mean that co-workers have to shoulder an increased workload or an increased level of stress or the burden of a concern of working around other workers who may be impacted or unable to safely do their job.
According to research, one in 10 workers say they have experienced the negative effects associated with a co-worker’s misuse of alcohol.
The negative effects include reduced ability to do their job, involved in an accident or close call, worked extra hours to cover for the co-worker, and took at least one day off work.
If a co-worker’s use of alcohol or other drugs is affecting someone else, then that co-worker does have a drug problem.
Often that person may not be aware their drug or alcohol use is affecting those around them, so it is recommended a work colleague approach them, or an appropriate person in the organisation such as a manager or someone from human resources.
An employer should remove any employee suspected of being affected by drugs or alcohol from a work situation where this could pose a risk, until the employer is satisfied the worker can safely perform their work.
It is also recommended that employees who are concerned that a co-worker’s drug or alcohol use is affecting their work and/or the safety of others, should document evidence of incidents.
She said it is easy to see that employees in the workplace who are affected by drugs or alcohol could present a safety risk and in that sense it would be prudent for employers, who have identified it as a potential hazard in the workplace, to take steps to address it.
“And the easiest and most effective way to address the problem is to introduce a drug and alcohol policy,” Cruden explained.
Cruden said for manufacturers who have concerns about employees working under the influence, as with any safety issues in the workplace, it’s just a matter of implementing a policy in consultation with workers, and unions if applicable.
“Areas to be discussed should include the objective and the features of the policy and they should go through the steps of implementing it, monitoring it and evaluating it.
“An important part of any policy should be designating and training relevant people who can identify these sorts of issues involved with drugs and alcohol, and also to become skilled in approaching workers who are suspected of displaying signs of being under the influence of drugs or alcohol.
“Employers should also put in place a policy that encourages education and awareness in the workforce.”
Cruden said some companies have conducted workplace health and safety surveys, which has provided co-workers with an anonymous forum to report a concern that they may have with a co-worker’s use of alcohol or drugs or experiencing their after-effects (a hangover or coming down.)
It has been shown that having a hangover or coming down from drugs at work can be just as problematic as being intoxicated or drugged.
Headaches, blurred vision, irritability, problems concentrating, lost voice and extreme tiredness can all create problems for co-workers.
Cruden said the key point of any drugs and alcohol policy is to tailor it to the particular workplace, and to consider the nature of the workplace and composition of the workforce and any relevant environmental issues.
“Employers need to think about which levels of the workforce the policy will apply to; if not everyone, which is common. They also need to think about training in the policy.”
She said an important part of introducing a policy is the step of consulting with the employees who are impacted by the policy.
“This step is likely to lead to a greater acceptance of the policy.”
Cruden pointed out that employers have a legal obligation to address alcohol and other drug issues in the workplace through the ‘duty of care’ provisions in the WHS Act.
These provisions require employers to take all reasonable or ‘practicable’ steps to ensure the health and safety of all workers and any other people who may be affected by the actions of the employer, such as contractors or clients.
As well, employees have a responsibility to their own safety and the safety of other workers.
Testing Cruden said one feature of a drugs and alcohol policy that can be seen to be controversial by employees, and trade unions in particular, is the introduction of drug and alcohol testing as part of the policy.
“However, members have reported drug and alcohol testing is an important component of their policies.
“Not for the reason of catching people out, as there is normally an important focus on education, counselling and rehabilitation in the policy, but testing can be an important deterrent to the use of illegal drugs and alcohol in the workplace.
“We have had feedback saying that were it not for the random drug and alcohol testing, being able to detect employees affected by ice would not have been possible.
“This is mainly because ice-affected employees can initially show no unusual behaviour, though they will later become aggressive and irrational as the ice usage continues.”
She said drug and alcohol testing is now a common part of many manufacturing companies’ drug and alcohol policy pointing out that the testing can take different forms.
“If there has been an incident or someone has been acting in a suspicious manner then the testing will often be less controversial than random testing.
“Equally there is a choice between urine and oral testing for drugs and alcohol, with the urine testing generating the greatest degree of opposition, primarily in relation to privacy concerns.”
She said it is important that the drugs and alcohol policy deals with how the information is collected from the testing, how it will be stored and handled, and how it will be dealt with if someone produces a non-negative result.
“This is an important component of putting employees at ease with the idea of drug and alcohol testing,” Cruden said.
Alcohol and Drug Foundation
03 9611 6100
Free alcohol and drug counselling online, www.counsellingonline.org.au
Ai Group Workplace Lawyers
0457 789 562