Whilst issues associated with drugs and alcohol on building sites have been acknowledged for some time, media reports suggesting that as many as one in five construction workers on the Gold Coast were recently found to be affected by illegal drugs highlight and underscore the extent of the problem.

In light of this, it is not surprising that testing for impairment due to alcohol or illicit substance abuse has become a significant topic of debate. Indeed, amendments made last year to the Building Code 2013 require contractors performing work on federal government projects (subject to thresholds) to have an occupational health and safety plan which includes a ‘fitness for work’ policy to manage alcohol and drugs. Under these plans, minimum numbers or percentages of workers (depending on the size of the employer’s workforce) are required to be tested for impairment due to alcohol and a number of different types of narcotics.

Is this the way to go?

According to Natasha Jager, national manager of workplace services at the Australian Drug Foundation, the answer is a resounding yes. Jager says there is overwhelming research to suggest that construction is a high risk sector for misuse of alcohol and illicit substances. That, coupled with the high-risk environment associated with building sites in terms of things such as working from heights and operating heavy machinery means that measures which go beyond that of ordinary workplaces across many other sectors are necessary and appropriate, she says.

“We think it is a fantastic move that the government has implemented,” she said. “It’s definitely a step in the right direction.”

The building sector’s most prominent union is less enthusiastic about the strategy. Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union ACT secretary Dean Hall stresses that dangers associated with working under the influence of alcohol or illicit substances are serious and that the union had taken an active approach with regard to this issue over several decades through its “NOT AT WORK” program. Nevertheless, he says the government’s approach raises concerns.

First, he says, the focus is too narrow. Along with alcohol and narcotics, Hall says the condition of workers with regard to their fitness to perform duties on a particular given day is influenced by a range of other factors, with fatigue associated with long and sometimes irregular hours in challenging conditions being a common cause for concern. For this reason, attention needs to revolve not just around alcohol and narcotics but rather around broader questions surrounding impairment and whether or not the individual in question is genuinely in a suitable condition to be working, he says. By putting all the attention on alcohol and drugs, Hall believes the government has merely tried to back the union into a corner and has diverted attention away from broader issues about the overall condition of the worker to perform the task at hand.

Moreover, Hall says, the random nature of the testing encouraged by the Code (which as specified above requires minimum numbers or percentages of workers to be tested each month) is problematic. Aside from having the potential to be manipulated or seen to be manipulated in order to target a particular selection or group of workers, this type of testing may not be effective as a deterrent for those who abuse narcotics or alcohol on a regular basis or suffer from addiction, he says, as many of these tend to ‘run the gauntlet’ in the hope of avoiding being caught in a similar manner to repeat drunk drivers on roads. By contrast, blanket testing of all personnel on site provides stronger deterrence and encouragement to seek help and avoids all possible perceptions with regard to targeting.

Whilst Jager and Hall differ on their views with regard to federal government’s moves, there are aspects to the successful approaches which both agree are critical. First, the primary area of focus must revolve around awareness and prevention, they say, with greater levels of awareness helping to aovid situations in which workers, for example, consume narcotics or large amounts of alcohol outside of work hours without understanding how this could impact their condition upon arrival for work the following day. Second, whilst those who are found to be in an unfit condition to work should obviously not be permitted on site, primary focus should revolve not around punishment but rather ensuring that workers who are found to have problems are given counselling and support.

Moreover, Jager says testing needs to be incorporated into a broader approach toward drugs and alcohol which focuses upon engaging with workers in order to discuss and develop a comprehensive strategy tailored to individual workplaces and ongoing efforts regarding awareness and education.

Alcohol and drug testing is now mandatory on drug sites.

Whether or not this will improve safety outcomes depends upon broader efforts to educate workers about dangers and support those who fall into problems.