There is no doubt that the recent announcement by the CFMEU of its intention to introduce a new proposal for an impairment policy that for the first time includes drug and alcohol testing was headline grabbing stuff that attracted claims of an ‘about face’ by the union on the issue.

Rather than a knee jerk ‘about face’ reaction by the union to drug and alcohol abuse – a serious problem that affects the whole community – the proposal was borne out of much discussion, academic research and the union’s decades of experience working with members on the ground to assist them in overcoming drug and alcohol abuse.

Our drug and alcohol policy has encompassed the union’s concern for safety of its members on site and the welfare of workers who need help to kick destructive habits that cause harm to them and their families.

The union’s focus of safety in the workplace is paramount. We have achieved safety standards on site through generations of struggle and it is on the public record that we have succeeded in transforming workplaces. The union has been responsible for abolishing dangerous practices such as the riding of the hook and the ban on dangerous substances such as asbestos.

We do not compromise the safety of our members. If someone is turning up for work affected by drugs or alcohol, they are putting their own safety and that of their workmates at risk. It is our members who have driven the union’s work in this area because they, understandably, know the dangers associated with working in a high risk environment. It is our delegates who have taken people aside, spoken to them and pressed them to get help if they suspect someone has substance abuse problems because they are responsible for monitoring safety on the job.

And it is our members who have driven the change in our proposal – due to their concern about the abuse of crystal methamphetamine (Ice) among workers. While the proportion of those using Ice in the industry is no higher or lower than the general community, there is no doubt that Ice presents challenges for those using the drug and for those who deal with addicts. There are regular reports of beleaguered health workers who are on the receiving end of aggressive and violent behaviour of Ice users and there are measures being put in place to protect those workers including the unprecedented employment of security guards in hospitals.

On a similar footing, the union must act to address behaviour that puts the safety of workers at risk and testing to identify those who have a problem is a much needed first step. That is why the union’s proposal for mandatory saliva testing and breath analysis must be conducted across the board and include employers, labourers, tradesmen, crane drivers and project managers.  Random testing  – such as testing 10% of the workforce – and/or focusing on one section of the workforce is not the solution when you want to maximise safety. The union can’t settle for 10% safety and it can’t just be about our members. We have seen plenty of managers who have left us wondering what drugs they were on when they ordered workers to perform work in life threatening conditions, when they should have known better.

Notwithstanding the excitement caused by the inclusion of testing in our proposal, the most important part of our impairment policy is the provision of upfront mandatory education of all workers on impairment in the workplace that doesn’t just focus on the drugs and alcohol. And we will continue to do what we have always done – assist people overcome substance addiction – a space the union has occupied for over 25 years. We are not about punishing people for their problems. We are about providing support for people to turn their lives around and we have evidence that this can and does happen.

There is no point in having a testing regime that identifies a problem when it not backed up with services to help those who need it. This is why health workers in the field were anything but enthusiastic about the Federal Government’s announcement of a new Taskforce to tackle the ‘Ice scourge’. After so many cuts to counselling facilities and support in the neediest areas for people affected by Ice and their families, they understood the Prime Minister’s concern to be nothing more than the action of a government desperate to look as if they’re doing something.

Associate Professor Nadine Ezard who is the clinical director of the St Vincent’s Hospital Drug and Alcohol service, quite rightly points out that the primary focus in any initiative should be about demand reduction and funding recovery and treatment, saying that “inflammatory language that criminalises people who use drugs simply alienates them when they need all the help they can get.”

We need an increase of funding to drug, alcohol and mental health services, and a boost to early childhood education and early intervention services for families if the government is really serious about tackling Ice.

Because what we know from experience is that with support and properly funded services – and not through punishment- people can and do change their lives for the better. It’s not a life sentence.