Under the influence

By: Karen Burge

If the past 12 months has taught us anything, it’s that coming to work when feeling sick puts others at risk. We have responsibility for our own health and the safety of those around us. But what about coming to work under the influence of drugs?

Whether it’s the city centres, urban fringes, regional areas or remote Australia, drugs are being used in our communities. And what goes on in the community can be brought to your organisation’s doorstep.

The National Drug Strategy Household Survey (2019) found around 3.4 million Australians reported using illicit drugs in the previous year—most commonly cannabis, followed by ecstasy, misused pharmaceuticals and cocaine. Wastewater analysis by the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission in 2020 found methylamphetamine to be the illicit drug most used by Australians, consuming an estimated 11.1 tonnes along with 5.6 tonnes of cocaine, 2.6 tonnes of MDMA and 1 tonne of heroin.

This does have unfortunate implications for workplaces.

In harm’s way

In 2020 a Melbourne truck driver allegedly affected by illicit drugs and fatigue was involved in a horror crash killing four police officers at a routine traffic stop. It’s a recent example of the potential for tragic consequences.

People who come to work under the influence present an injury hazard to themselves and put others in danger or in the difficult position of being expected to cover for unsafe work practices, explains a Safe Work Australia (SWA) spokeswoman.

“Co-ordination, motor control, alertness and ability to exercise judgement can become affected by alcohol and drug use. These safety risks are greater where people operate machinery, drive vehicles or plant, or rely on concentration to do their work.”

This, she explains, can result in:

  • workplace accidents, injuries or equipment damage
  • increased absenteeism and reduced productivity
  • poor teamwork, workplace relationships and harmful behaviours
  • disciplinary or conduct problems.

Risky business       

Past research shows the construction, mining and hospitality sectors to be areas with high use of the methamphetamine drug, ice. In 2019, the National Centre for Education and Training on Addiction explored construction employees’ use of cannabis, cocaine and methamphetamines. Consumption of each drug over the previous 12 months was found to be two to five times higher than national averages.

Safe Work Australia explains psychological injury and workplace psychosocial hazards (things that cause prolonged or acute stress) such as high work demand, fatigue and bullying can contribute to drug and alcohol abuse.

“Effectively managing these hazards will also help to minimise drug and alcohol related risks,” the SWA spokeswoman explains. For more on strategies visit: www.safeworkaustralia.gov.au

Taking control

Tackling drugs at work is complicated but Carl Lundberg, a biotechnology expert and founder of APAC Diagnostic, says testing is one proactive approach businesses can take.

“The most objective method would be through wastewater testing,” he explains. It’s highly effective in a defined population but has limitations where multiple workplaces share the same sewer.

“An alternative is random drug testing where, for example, the employer randomly tests a quarter of its workforce four times per year.” Drugs can be detected from blood, oral fluid, urine, hair and sweat using an immunoassay device which functions in the same way as a pregnancy test; a line represents a negative result and no line a presumptive positive, Lundberg explains.

Just like Australia’s approach to covid-19, knowing where the problem exists and to what extent is crucial. Testing gives businesses the insight it needs to operate safely and responsibly while helping to minimise the risks.