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Drug Use and Workplace Safety

The old adage ‘prevention is better than cure’ has never been more relevant than it is in the case of employee drug use and workplace safety.

Nearly 20% of lost productivity costs to Australian workplaces are from alcohol and other drug use, with untreated mental health conditions costing Australian workplaces $11 billion a year.

However, when it comes to alcohol and other drug use in the workplace, there are a lot of myths about “what works” in ensuring a health and happy work environment.

Workplace alcohol and other drug use

Most people who use alcohol and other drugs are employed. Employed people are also more likely than unemployed people to drink at risky levels.

Workers in the building and construction industry have a higher rate of use of some drugs than the general population. One study showed that 5% of building and construction workers reported recent use of methamphetamine and 20% reported recent use of cannabis. This compares to the general population rates of 2% and 10%, respectively.

Poor work conditions, boredom, low job satisfaction and industrial change all increase the risk of alcohol and other drug use.

Impacts of alcohol and other drug use on the workplace include the risk of accidents and injury, absenteeism and presenteeism (being at work but underperforming because of illness), higher staff turnover and reduced productivity. Nearly 20% of lost productivity costs in Australia are directly related to alcohol and other drug use. Addressing alcohol and other drug use in the workplace is clearly important.

But, when developing a workplace drug and alcohol policy, one of the common mistakes workplaces make is placing too much focus on drug and alcohol use, rather than on impairment and fitness for work.

Fitness for work means a person’s capacity to work without risk to themselves or others’ health and safety. Many things can affect fitness for work. Drugs are one of those things. Others include stress, depression, anxiety and fatigue.

Best practice policies

The backbone of workplace safety is a comprehensive workplace alcohol and other drug policy.

Good workplace health policy:

  • Engages your team to improve motivation and develop a healthy workplace culture to reduce the risk of drug and mental health issues
  • Prevent harm from drugs and mental health through solid workplace policies
  • Respond to problems early and effectively with treatment referral, return to work and risk identification training for managers

A clear and well-defined policy includes education and training for managers and workers, and identified referral options such as an employee assistance program. Screening and brief intervention in the workplace setting have also been shown to reduce use and risk.

Workplaces with effective drug and alcohol policies have happier, healthier and more productive staff and reduced absenteeism.

What about testing?

Although workplace drug testing is commonly used, there is no evidence to suggest it improves workplace health and safety.

Tests for use of drugs or alcohol do not definitively indicate impairment or fitness for work. Alcohol testing is immediate and detects current levels of alcohol in the system, so it is able to indicate some level of impairment.

But other drugs can be detected in the system for days and sometimes weeks after the drug has been used, depending on how much and how often it has been used.

Someone might return a positive drug test after the drug has become inactive and the person is not intoxicated, and unlikely to be affected by the drug, depending on the testing method used.

For drugs other than alcohol, testing indicates that someone is probably not impaired from drugs when a negative result is returned, but a positive test does not necessarily indicate that the person is impaired.

Given the limitations of drug testing, to be effective a workplace policy needs to be part of a broader healthy workplace solution that considers drug and alcohol use, mental health, fatigue and other impacts on fitness for work. Extensive manager and worker consultation is essential for effective uptake and implementation.