You don’t have to look too far to see evidence of Australia’s escalating drug problem. Every day the media reports on a barrage of incidents, accidents and violent attacks that can be directly attributed to the use of recreational drugs, alarmingly many are connected to a higher uptake of crystal methamphetamine, or ice, as it is commonly known.
The problem is that many businesses have previously seen this out-of-hours activity as exactly that – if it occurs outside of allocated work hours, then it’s not really a workplace problem.
The truth is somewhat different based on two factors:
· Our societal tendency to refer to all non-prescription drugs as ‘recreational’ inadvertently alludes to usage being carried out only during off-the-clock hours, something we now know to be less than accurate and;
· Recreational drug use can create significant behavioural changes that render employees unfit for work and can give rise to unnecessary risk of harm to themselves and to their co-workers
It’s easy to dismiss reports as overblown hype, but when the situation intensifies to the point of introducing a Parliamentary Joint Committee on Law Enforcement enquiry into drug use (specifically crystal methamphetamine) in industry, we’ve clearly moved beyond a media beat-up.
In June last year, Australian Industry Group (AiGroup), which represents 60,000 businesses employing more than one million Australians nationwide, prepared a submission for the parliamentary inquiry, which highlighted some troubling statistics.
The submission cites a report prepared by the National Centre for Education and Training on Addiction (NCETA).
The NCETA report is based on the 2004 survey results and showed a higher propensity for drug use in some industries (specifically: transport, construction, manufacturing, agriculture, retail and hospitality) than that of the total workforce average.
It also found that 2.5% of the workforce reported attending work while under the influence of drugs, with tradespeople (3.9%) and unskilled workers (3.7%) representing the largest groups when compared with professionals and managers.
What NCETA’s report does not highlight is the subsequent shift in the form of methamphetamine commonly being used. The 2014 release of the survey report was able to compare data obtained in previous surveys and underlines a significant move away from powdered forms of the drug (speed) to crystal (ice). This swing appears to indicate a notable change in the social acceptance of a drug, which was previously considered outside the bounds of “casual” drug use.
AiGroup has interpreted these findings as particularly concerning for the manufacturing, mining, construction and transport industries, given the fundamental requirement for heavy machinery and vehicle operation.
In addition, the group analysed input from its own members and discovered common characteristics among employees who were found to be ice users and subsequently required management as a result.
It was found that they:
· Had a period of stable employment
· Had no prior history of disciplinary action or poor work performance
· Were more likely to work in regional or remote worksites and/or offices
· Tested positive for very high levels of methamphetamine (well above detection cut-off rates of 150ug/L)
These findings should concern business owners, managers and safety officers, as they contradict commonly held beliefs of a ‘typical’ drug-user’s profile and therefore potentially diminish an employer’s perceived ability to detect drug use without a structured workplace drug policy and co-ordinated testing program in place.
There has been significant resistance to workplace drug and alcohol testing in Australia, particularly from the viewpoint of industry groups and unions, who have argued that testing represents an employee privacy invasion.
AiGroup acknowledges this viewpoint, yet concludes that under Australia’s rigorous workplace health and safety (WHS) legislation, businesses must be permitted to implement a structured policy and program of testing if that will enable meeting these WHS obligations.
Much of the current drug research and reporting focus revolves specifically around ice, due to the documented rise in uptake.
This increase in usage is facilitated through ease of availability as, compared to other stimulants such as cocaine, ice is relatively straightforward to obtain. It is manufactured locally and subsequently distributed throughout Australia via organised crime networks, which appear to be just as effective in infiltrating regional areas as metropolitan centres.
This reach, combined with a relatively low street price and powerful physiological and psychological effects, deliver ‘bang for buck’ to potential users, making it the drug of choice for an increasing number of Australian workers.
Amphetamine users have been found to fit into one of three distinct groups: social, functional or dependent users.
Functional users represent a distinct risk to businesses, as they tend to use drugs to perform specific tasks, which are often related to their employment.
In industries and occupations susceptible to time pressures, such as mining, construction and transport, there is even greater enticement to indulge in order to get the job done.
Amphetamines are not the only concern, however. The use of any substance, which impairs an individual’s judgement or their ability to effectively respond to a situation, can put any company at risk.
According to the NDSHS data, from a purely demographic perspective, males in the 20-29 year age group represent the highest usage rate in terms of “use in the last twelve months” and “use in the last month” categories.
The data also indicates that both cannabis and ecstasy are still in widespread use, while a decline in both heroin and GBH usage has been observed.
Regardless of the substance in discussion, AiGroup made recommendations to the Australian Government for a more concerted effort in the development of fit-for-purpose drug and alcohol policy and testing that acknowledges the specific needs of an industry, an organisation and the particular roles and responsibilities within that organisation.
The group additionally rejects the stance proffered by some unions, whereby “policy objectives focus on worker impairment rather than objective, medical drug and alcohol testing procedures underpinned by Australian Standards”.
From a duty of care perspective, it’s hard to argue against the logic of implementing a program that addresses the needs of the business’ obligations, whilst providing a safe and secure work environment for all employees.
*This article was prepared by Pathtech Pty Ltd, a global supplier of state-of-the-art science and forensic products, including drug and alcohol detection devices.
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