Illicit drug use is rampant in the Australian workplace – and its impact on business and the economy is now impossible to ignore.

The Australian economy loses an estimated $6 billion a year due to illicit drug use.

In individual workplaces it not only increases the probability of injury, but can also decrease productivity and compromise customer service.

The question is now whether we can collectively afford to continue turning a blind eye to a clearly escalating problem.

Many industry sectors are now at significant risk of failing to meet their WHS obligations.

Employers must provide a safe workplace, which includes identifying whether individuals are fit for duty.

The National Drug Strategy Household Survey (NDSHS) is conducted every two or three years and gathers information on tobacco, alcohol and illicit drug use among Australians.

The last published data was collected from 24,000 households between June and December 2013 and the report released by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare in early 2014.

Results are not only presented as a snapshot of the current situation, but also measured against previous studies in order to gauge changes and to identify trends.

According to the 2014 release, in 2013 just over 40% of Australians either smoked daily, drank alcohol in ways that put them at risk of harm or used an illicit drug in the previous 12 months – and 3.1% identified as engaging in all three.

When delving into specific habits, the report found that illicit drug use had remained largely unchanged between 2010 and 2013.

Within the drugs sub-categories, usage of some types of substances (heroin, GBH and ecstasy) had actually fallen slightly.

While methamphetamines showed no overall increase, the breakdown by form of the drug used highlighted a significant difference; the use of powdered methamphetamine (such as speed) is dropping, with crystal methamphetamine (ice) escalating sharply in contrast.

The study discovered that users of cannabis and methamphetamine are more likely to consume regularly, with most users indicating use at least every few months – 64% for cannabis and 52% methamphetamine.

By contrast, ecstasy and cocaine use is less frequent, with users typically only indulging once or twice a year (54% and 71% respectively).

Among illicit drug takers, 60% of recent users also drank alcohol in quantities deemed risky by health authorities.

Cannabis is the drug most often used in addition to other illicit drugs and users of other psychoactive substances also show a higher propensity to use additional illicit drugs. People aged between the ages of 20 and 29 are the most likely to use (27%) and males are more likely to partake overall.

According to Odyssey House, one of Australia’s largest alcohol and other drug rehabilitation services, employers need to give priority to promoting a safe workplace culture and to understanding addiction-related behaviours.

They suggest that many factors have an impact on consumption patterns of workers. Workforce culture is a consistent explanation for drug use and other identified associated factors include:

·       Workplace stressors including shift work

·       The work environment

·       Poorly designed equipment

·       Fear of losing one’s job

·       Conflict with a supervisor

·       Peer pressure

·       Discrimination and/or prejudice

·       Personal stressors including marital or personal relationship problems and financial problems

Among the adverse effects on the workplace are an increased probability of injury, decreased productivity and compromised customer service.

The Australian Industry Group (AIG) has recently voiced its concerns in a submission to a parliamentary enquiry.

They claim the construction, manufacturing and transport industries are at significant risk of increased work health and safety issues (WHS) due to the jump in ice use.

The AIG says that entrenched union opposition to drug and alcohol testing means that many employers are failing in their duty of care.

Under WHS legislation, employers are obligated to ensure safe systems of work, safe use of plant, structures and substances, effective systems for monitoring the health of workers and workplace conditions and, ultimately, a safe work environment. Staff members presenting any of the common post-use symptoms can effectively diminish the safety of the workplace for everyone.

In a complete about-face, the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union declared support for blanket drug and alcohol testing in March of this year, on the basis that ice is a “game changer,” but drew the line at urine testing, opting instead for saliva.

And it’s no longer just the usual suspects either, with white collar workers now on the radar as well.

While ongoing media reports that highlight our society’s ice use “epidemic” deserve some of the credit for creating increased interest in drug testing, it is suggested that the prevalence of roadside drug testing, and the number of positive results it has drawn, has also become the impetus for companies keen to avoid problems before they surface.

It’s relatively difficult to detect (or prove) ice use without drug testing, so employers are aiming to identify issues before they become an outright danger, with many companies now reportedly including drug testing in the pre-employment phase.

Determining the actual economic impact on business in Australia is difficult, but conservative estimates put it at around $6 billion per annum.

While absenteeism, injury and productivity loss can be counted, it is difficult to formally draw a direct link between these effects and the out-of-work activities undertaken by employees.

This is unlikely to change, as there is little incentive for workers to volunteer information to employers on any illegal behaviours carried out in their private lives.

It is no longer only the domain of large companies in industries traditionally recognised as having high incidences of drug use, such as long-haul transport and mining.

Businesses of any size are now equally susceptible, given the shift in drug consumption habits. It’s easy to dismiss drug testing as an attempt to police the private lives of employees, but the fact is that employers have an obligation to provide a safe environment for staff and determining whether individuals are fit for duty is part of that obligation.

In the United States, only about 10% of the domestic workforce undertook regular drug testing in the 1980s. Today it stands at 70%.

This is due to legislative changes and a shifting business mindset that recognised the financial and health costs associated with doing nothing.

In Australia the numbers are much lower, but a combination of factors is increasingly seeing employers rewriting company policy and implementing programs that aim to mitigate the effects of out-of-hours employee behaviours – before they become a cost to business.


The information in this article was supplied by Pathtech, a leading supplier of drug and alcohol detection devices in Australia and New Zealand.


Ph: 1800 069 161

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