Reducing Risk

Alcohol and Other Drugs in the Construction Industry

Aside from absenteeism, job turnover, interpersonal job issues, poor job performance and lost productivity, alcohol and other drug use in construction can be particularly dangerous. When affected by alcohol and other drugs on site, you risk on-the-job injuries or death as a result of impaired coordination, judgement and the ability to see and respond to hazards.

So how common is risky drinking and other drug use in the construction industry? What are the risk factors and most importantly, what can employers do to prevent it?

Alcohol and other drugs in the Australian workplace

Alcohol and other drug use is not unique to the construction industry. In a recent Policy Talk paper written for the Australian Drug Foundation, workplace alcohol and other drug experts Ken Pidd and Ann Roche identify the full extent of the issue of alcohol and other drugs on Australian workplaces.

They recognise that the annual cost of alcohol-related absenteeism alone is estimated to be up to $1.2 billion, while alcohol and other drug use (not including tobacco) account for about $5.2 billion in lost productivity and workplace injuries and deaths.

Phillip Collins, Head of Workplace Services at the Australian Drug Foundation, says that these figures are quite staggering. “Best practice organisations recognise that these costs directly impact on their bottom line and that the drinking activities and drug use of an employee can affect work performance,” he says.

While the dollar cost to businesses across Australia might be quite a shock to some, it’s nothing compared to the human cost. Alcohol use contributes to 5 per cent of all Australian workplace deaths and 11 per cent of accidents, as well as the huge human toll on families and relationships impacted by alcohol and other drugs.

Alcohol and other drugs in the construction industry
The construction industry has one of the highest levels of workers who use illicit drugs, second only to the hospitality industry. Tradespeople are the occupational group who are most likely to drink at risky levels.

So, what does this mean on the job?

In a 2012 survey of construction workers by the Sustainable Built Environment National Research Centre, one third of workers reported experiencing negative effects from their co-workers’ drinking. Chris*, a 30-year-old Victorian construction worker, says that it’s hangovers from late nights out drinking that cause the most concern for him on site, as he worries about his co-workers and his own safety. “The guys were rained off the site at midday yesterday and a large group of them went to the pub straight after… it’s the next morning and the guys are all in the sheds before work holding their heads nursing massive hangovers as they got home at 10.30pm. That’s a good 10 hours of solid drinking.

“When it comes to safety I guess the guys tend not to care as much about safety or how they affect others’ safety. We have people driving on site who would be well over the limit.”

Risk Factors

Sydney’s Foundation House is a 28-day drug, alcohol and gambling rehabilitation treatment centre run by the Construction Industry Drug and Alcohol Foundation. Chief Executive, Tony Papa, says that lunchtime and after work drinks have long been an industry tradition, making risky drinking a major issue in construction.

Chris agrees that tradition has a lot to do with the level of alcohol consumption in the industry. “Generally the construction industry begins work at 7am and with a standard days’ work we are finished at 3.30pm. The rest of the workforce generally doesn’t finish til 5-5.30pm which gives the guys a couple of hours to have a few beers after work. Historically, after a day’s work, everyone would head back to the site office and the Foreman looking after the job would have a fridge always fully stocked with beer and guys would drink for free until they either ran out of beer or had to go home. We are in a heavily male dominated industry and when guys socialise generally the first instinct is to head to the pub.”

Bill* who works on another site, is in his early 40s; he too describes the role that drinking plays in the culture of the construction site. “We still do lunchtime drinks but nothing excessive, though one guy I know will always have five pints at lunch every day… We also occasionally have a traveller or two on the way home.

“The young ones coming in are an initial concern. They binge on the weekend, but don’t drink as much or smoke during the week. They soon learn that they can only sustain this level of abuse for a short period of time (three to five years), and usually when a girlfriend or wife puts pressure on them to stop they do.”

Alcohol and Methamphetamines

Tony Papa from Foundation House says that alcohol is what brings most people through his doors. “Alcohol is constant through all admissions to Foundation House, either by itself or in combination with other drugs.” In regards to other drugs, Mr Papa says, “the main increase… [is] in methamphetamine (ice) users.”

Australian Drug Foundation’s Phillip Collins says that though alcohol is the major concern, it appears to be the case that a growing number of people are using ice. “Ice is a common name for crystal methamphetamine which is sometimes also known as crystal, meth, crystal meth, shabu, tina or glass. Ice is usually smoked or injected, but it can also be snorted or swallowed. It’s a stimulant that speeds up the messages going between the brain and the body.

“Ice is a highly addictive drug capable of triggering aggressive and violent behaviour, causing significant trauma in our communities. It’s a drug that once used heavily, is difficult to escape, and is increasingly taking hold of people’s lives.”

Both Chris and Bill have seen ice affect some of their co-workers. “I have noticed we have a couple of ice users on our job site, which is starting to become alarming. These guys tend to have very erratic behaviour and are generally painful to work with. Ice is never a good thing and there is no real means of support or material to prevent guys from trying these drugs,” Chris says.

Bill adds that while there may be an increase in ice use at the moment, it’s something he’s been seeing affect the industry for years. “Ice is very nasty but it always has been and it’s been around for a long time. A mate I used to work with had to pack up his family and move to Tasmania to get away from it. He started out doing cones all the time to then getting on ice and it just messed him up. Had another mate I worked with whose marriage fell apart because of ice.”

Approaching the Problem

Phillip Collins says that it’s not all bad news for employers when it comes to drug and alcohol use. “At the Australian Drug Foundation, we started working with businesses because we identified the great potential the workplace has to positively affect a person’s health and wellbeing. We also saw employers looking for ways to reduce health and safety risks.”

According to Phillip, many employers within the industry are already stepping up their efforts to prevent alcohol and other drug problems at their site. “One great example of some work already being done is the CFMEU’s ‘Not at work’ campaign. This campaign provides employers with resources that they can use to educate their employees about how drinking and drugs – even out of hours – can affect work performance and put people at risk.”

He says that while campaigns like this are a great start, to turn the statistics around, a multi-pronged approach is required.

The first step should be a formal workplace policy. Phillip says a policy should provide an outline of the organisation’s position with a set of guidelines for dealing with all aspects of alcohol and drug related issues within the workplace.

He says education and training are also key elements to any successful workplace strategy. “Employers need to make sure they are able to provide regular and ongoing education and training, as well as access to counselling and treatment,” he says. “There are lots of forms of education and training, including the ‘Not at work’ resources, online learning and more substantial awareness sessions.

“Web-based training in particular has been identified as a really valuable way to educate employees coming into the industry. As an employer, you can use web-training to inform employees of your company’s policies about alcohol and other drugs in the workplace, and educate them on the harms they can cause. The Australian Drug Foundation has produced a great tool called AWARE which can be tailored for individual companies.

“Other strategies include health promotion, early interventions and drug testing,” he says. “In particular, formal peer support programs can encourage workers to become role models for the younger ones coming through.”

Tony Papas from Foundation House agrees that peer support programs as a great way to go. “Most large construction jobs now have safety committees, where peers liaise with the company to help assist affected workers. The Building Trades Group Drug & Alcohol Program, which is affiliated with Foundation House, helps to train safety committee workers and also gives talks on sites to workers about the dangers of working affected by drugs and alcohol.”

Phillip Collins says co-workers are in a great position to recognise and respond to employees with alcohol or drug problems. “Putting the right policies in place can allow workers to look out for each other more effectively.”

“What’s clear is that it’s time for a culture shift – great strides have already been made; now it’s time for employers to go that extra mile to reduce the impact of alcohol and other drugs on the industry.”

March 27, 2017, 1:53 AM AEDT