Call for action on drugs in the workplace

| February 19, 2018

Although non-medical drug use is often viewed as a personal, legal or social issue, their effect in the workplace is also significant. Medium sized firms can be particularly vulnerable to the problems caused by drug use by particular workers, given their smaller workforce over all.

Problems can be caused by the misuse of legal products, such as alcohol and certain painkillers, as well as a range of illegal substances traded in a black economy now worth up to $7 billion a year.

While certain industries suffer higher rates of abuse than others, alcohol and other drug related problems can occur in any workplace. Estimates of the cost of injuries, absenteeism, lost production, workers compensation and rehabilitation services vary, but may cost the Australian economy billions of dollars a year.

People may take drugs to try to cope with personal or mental health problems, but their use will only exacerbate these issues over time and may disrupt the whole workplace. Employers may notice lateness, inefficiency and absenteeism, for example, as well as suffer lost time and production from drug related incidents and their damage to plant, equipment and other property.

Drug impaired behaviour also increases the risk of affected employees injuring others as well as themselves. Colleagues often find themselves in the uncomfortable position of feeling obligated to cover for the drug takers’ poor work performance, or ‘to dob’ in a mate for their own good.

Signs that a worker may have a substance abuse problem can range from habitual lateness and a neglect of personal grooming to poor communication, concentration and communication as well as frequent absences from work, serious ‘near miss’ incidents, hallucinations or aggressive behaviour.

Approaching a person who is under the influence of a mind altering substance requires skill and sensitivity to avoid a bad situation becoming worse. When establishing a company drug policy, consideration should therefore be given to designating and training appropriate people to approach workers who are causing concern.

Suitable staff may include managers, supervisors, health and safety representatives or others who have appropriate knowledge, experience and perhaps counselling qualifications and can therefore offer the most effective style of approach.

W.A. Chamber of Commerce calls for tougher approach

Despite public health efforts and the creation by many firms of drug policies and support services, recent Chamber of Commerce data shows that drugs in the workplace remain a major concern for state businesses, prompting calls for changes in industrial relations regulations regarding drug testing and dismissals.

Last year, for example, West Australia CCI’s Employee Relations Advice Centre received a steady stream of 20 requests a month from employers worried about drug use in their workplace. The calls sought advice about implementing drug and alcohol policies and managing employees affected by methamphetamine, alcohol, prescription medication, synthetic drugs, marijuana and other mood altering substances.

CCI Chief Executive Officer Deidre Willmott said the majority of calls received are from businesses in high-risk industries, including manufacturing, construction and mining, where the effects of drugs and alcohol in the workplace can be catastrophic.

“This is a serious concern for employers because it threatens the safety of workers,” she says.

“Employers have told CCI about experiences of erratic and aggressive behaviour toward co-workers, irrational behaviour resulting in mistakes being made, significant drops in productivity, and frequent, unexplained absenteeism when abuse of drugs or alcohol is occurring.”

Wilmott called for a rethink on IR regulations on drug testing and dismissals to ensure the safety of workplaces.

“Employers must be supported by an industrial relations regulatory framework that allows businesses to implement appropriate drug and alcohol testing programs that effectively protect their organisations, every employee and the public from significant safety concerns posed by employees affected by drugs and alcohol,” she says.

“The Fair Work Act should be amended to give employers the discretion to choose which drug testing method is most suitable for their industry, and to recognise the obligations employees have to their employer and co-workers to maintain a safe workplace.

“Employers are wanting to be pro-active by putting appropriate processes in place to help their employees, to prevent these issues occurring, and to ensure that workplaces are safe. But in those instances where they are unable to do so, they should be able to dismiss these employees without facing risk of unfair dismissal claims.”