Roughly a year ago, reports of crystal methamphetamine flowing like tap water at midweek parties which workers at Thiess’ Wonthaggi Desalination Plant construction project were encouraged to attend and which bikie gangs allegedly used as forums for distributing illicit substances made for shocking headlines.
More recently, headlines have been no less alarming. In its submission to the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Law Enforcement, the Australian Industry Group claimed that use of Ice in sectors such as construction as well as transport and manufacturing was worryingly too common.
So what are the facts? How prevalent in Ice in the construction sector, what are the costs and what can be done?
Ice – more formally known as crystal methamphetamine but also going by several other names – is an addictive drug which stimulates the brain and central nervous system and results in higher levels of alertness and physical activity as well as a temporary feeling of euphoria. As the most potent form of methamphetamine, it is more addictive and delivers a more intense ‘high’ than other forms such as powder (speed) and base.
In terms of the workforce, its use can impair concentration, the ability to gauge speed and distance, judgement, and coordination. Those under the influence cannot safety drive, operate machinery or perform tasks in high-risk or hazardous environments. On occasions, those affected have become agitated and aggressive, creating potential dangers associated with physical or verbal abuse toward co-workers or others. Impaired levels of cognitive ability raise the likelihood of mistakes and necessary rework.
Workers who use methamphetamines also report higher levels of absenteeism: in a 2013 household survey conducted by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, around one in six meth users reported having been absent from work due to injury, while around one in 13 reported absenteeism due to drug use. The initial ‘rush’ lasts for only a few hours, but flow on effects such as sleep deprivation and consequential fatigue, poor concentration and impaired judgement can last several days after use.
While specific data for Ice in particular does not exist, figures from the aforementioned survey suggests a higher prevalence of methamphetamine use within the construction sector compared with the general economy. At 5.2 per cent – or around one in 20 – the proportion of workers who consume a form of methamphetamine either frequently or occasionally is higher in building than for any other sector of the economy except for wholesale and stands at more than twice the national average of 2.3 per cent overall. By occupation, meanwhile, usage rates are highest amongst trades and technical workers and unskilled labourers. Of those within the overall workforce who do use meth, economy-wide, around one in 10 (9.7 per cent) say they do so at work, while around one in three acknowledge having worked under the influence on at least one occasion over the past 12 months.
Dr Ken Pidd, Deputy Director at the National Centre for Education and Training on Addiction says the relatively high rates of usage within the sector can most likely be attributed to a number of factors. Being largely male and often educated to the certificate level, a large proportion of the sector’s workers are in naturally ‘high risk’ categories from a statistical viewpoint – especially workers who are under 30 years old. With methamphetamines working as a stimulant, long hours and the physically demanding nature of the work are a further contributing factor. Finally, a combination of the relatively high prevalence of likely users along with a relatively loose environment of workplace control (especially in on residential sites) can lead to higher levels of availability in this sector compared with other sectors.
“Basically, there’s the type of workers themselves plus different workplace conditions that can impact on whether people use at work or (alternatively) use away from work and still come to the workplace as well,” Pitt said.
While the above numbers are significant, Australia Drug Foundation head of workplace services Phil Collins says it is important to maintain a sense of perspective. Whereas the Australian economy loses around $1.4 billion worth of output to drugs each year, Collins says, around $6 billion per year is lost because of injuries, deaths, absenteeism and loss of productivity due to alcohol. Hospital admission data, he adds, shows that alcohol – which is consumed by around eight in 10 Australian adults against around two or three in 100 who use methamphetamines – is found in the system in the case of around 15 per cent of all hospital admissions which result from workplace accidents (no equivalent figures are available in terms of narcotic use).
“You look at alcohol – over 80 per cent of the population consume alcohol,” Collins said. “There are 2.3 per cent that consume methamphetamine. So the drug of choice of the population (alcohol), which happens to be legal, has a bigger impact on the workforce because of the number of people who do consume it and also because of a lack of understanding of what the next day effects are.”
So what should be done? At an individual level, Pidd says it is important to be able to recognise the signs of use (e.g. absenteeism, coming in frequently late, extreme tiredness, unexplained agitation and so on) in co-workers and to guide them toward accessible treatment options.
At a broader level, both Pidd and Collins stress the need for greater awareness around level of use, critical risk factors and why use may occur. Collins commends the sector for what he says is a proactive initiative in which unions and some large construction companies insist that tradespeople whom they engage undertake a smartphone training program developed by the ADF every quarter.
As for testing, Pidd says this can be effective but only as one part of a broader strategy, especially as testing performed during normal business hours may not detect weekend use and testing will not pick up psychological factors associated with regular use (anxiety, depression, aggressive behaviour etc. that can impact the workplace). Random testing performed only on a small percentage of the workforce also brings about a relatively low probability of getting caught.
“I think drug testing can be a very useful tool in managing risks to workplace safety and productivity,” Pidd said. “It does have a role to play because it can be very effective for detecting that someone is using and it can also be a very important tool in the confrontation process. Most people who have a drug problem will deny they have a drug problem, but if they return a positive test, you can say, well, that is the definition of a problem.”
“The problem with drug testing is that on its own, it’s likely to have a very limited effect and can also have some negative effects. But if it is introduced as part of a comprehensive approach that also takes into account the needs and resources of individual workplaces, it can work quite well.”