Anti-drug campaigner and founder of Drug-Safe Communities, Michael White, recalls the day he was invited to a work site which not only allowed its people to have alcohol in their system – it offered different alcohol standards for different employees.
The transport company permitted its office staff to have blood alcohol content as high as .05 percent – the same as the limit for motorists – on the job while they were working. Drivers and some other workers were allowed up to .02 while they operated machinery and drove vehicles. Commercial drivers, however, had to be alcohol-free.
This scenario led to a long list of issues, said Michael White. Putting aside the personal health of each individual employee for the moment, and just focusing on the operation of the business, it created an unhealthy work environment in which people knew they could drink right up to the time they started their shifts. In fact, it also allowed for them to ‘top up’ during work hours – as long as they didn’t exceed their blood alcohol level.
If an office worker was on an afternoon or evening shift and turned up with .05 percent of alcohol in their system, having been drinking throughout the day, they were “within their limit” but could eventually be impacted by a fatigue factor during the night which would impair their judgement and abilities even further.
The company didn’t have a regime of drug or alcohol testing which opened the door to workers drinking in excess of their blood alcohol limit as they didn’t expect they would ever be caught. For workers who had any knowledge of breathalyser technology this situation also gave them a loop hole. They would have known that there are fine tolerances between different types of breathalysers and, even if the employer tested them and found they were over their limit, they could challenge the reading by saying they had tested themselves on their own breathalyser and believed they were within their blood alcohol limit.
Why is alcohol so dangerous in the workplace? It is very much a part of Australian culture and it is not as if everyone walks around inebriated. Alcohol is a depressant drug. It slows down messages to and from the brain. This can lead to impaired reaction times, reduced concentration, coordination and problem solving ability. Alcohol consumption can lead to a ‘hangover’ leaving people feeling fatigued, irritable, nauseous and suffering from vomiting and headaches. All of these outcomes are obstructions to an office worker successfully carrying out their duties or a driver steering and operating their vehicle. Gender plays a part in this too. Women carry more fatty tissue in their bodies. Alcohol is not soluble in fat and so it is concentrated in to a smaller area in the female body and this leads to a higher blood alcohol level than a same sized male.
It probably comes as no surprise to you that the National Drug Strategy Household Survey revealed that 4 out of 5 people over the age of 14 had consumed alcohol in the previous year. One in 5 had more than two standard drinks each day. One in 4 had consumed so much alcohol each month that they were considered being at risk of injury. And, more than 6 Australians in every 100 drank alcohol every day. Any statistician will tell you that if this many people are consuming alcohol every day a certain number of them are going to be turning up for work with alcohol in their system.
The National Drug Strategy Household Survey also took a look at drugs in the workplace and found that 3.5% of the working population took time off work due to the consumption of alcohol. The report also discovered a connection between drinking alcohol and smoking cannabis (marijuana) and other drugs and 2.5% of workers admitted they went to work under the influence of illicit drugs. There were a few industries in which this was more common than others and they included construction and mining.
The Australian Government has stated that alcohol contributes to more than $4.5 billion of lost productivity across the business landscape. So, there is a direct correlation between people going to work whilst intoxicated and a huge drop in performance, output and profit. Employers’ liabilities include important tasks being delayed or put on hold because staff members are absent (recovering from their ‘bender’) or struggling to perform whilst under the effects of alcohol (presenteeism); reduced morale and rising tension felt by workers who have to cover for colleagues ‘under the weather’. Michael White’s transport client had allowed a dangerous situation to develop – an insidious ‘us and them’ attitude – in which ‘privileges’ were based on job descriptions.
Think of other possibilities when peoples’ performance is compromised: stock being damaged whilst being moved about, or vehicles and equipment being damaged. And, worse than stock losses and insurance claims…a damaged reputation in the market place. Michael White said employers would be shocked to know how much has been taken off their bottom line because of alcohol.
Lost profits are not where it ends. Alcohol has a direct link to injuries in the workplace, and not just for those people who have been drinking. Several years ago, SafeWork reported that 8 out of every 10 people impacted by a substance-related accident at their place of work had not consumed alcohol or drugs themselves. This means that in most cases completely innocent workers who are ‘doing the right thing’ are still having their lives turned upside down.
According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, the cost of harm arising from drinking alcohol is more than $15 billion each year. That figure is astronomical. It is very close to the income generated by international students in Australia ($20 billion). For every dollar our education sector attracts, almost a dollar is lost because of alcohol. This is a national crisis. Take it one step further…records show that 5 percent of workplace deaths involve alcohol. Alcohol at work is not just putting people in hospital, it is also killing them.
Employers need to understand that in the midst of this crisis they might find themselves at the centre of a legal battle. Employers have a responsibility to provide a safe work environment for their people. If they fail in this duty they can be held vicariously liable for the actions of their (alcohol-affected) staff. Allowing alcohol on a work site is a ticking time bomb.
How serious can it be? The SafeWork Tasmania website presents a tragic scenario which took place when six people flew from Hamilton Island in the Whitsundays for a quick 15 kilometre flight to Lindeman Island. No sooner had the Piper Cherokee taken off than the engine began misfiring, cutting out and restarting again. The pilot began a right hand turn with the engine continuing to misfire and then it cut out altogether. The plane plummeted to the ground and all of the occupants were killed.
Civil aviation investigators found no evidence to suggest that the crash was caused by engine failure, structural damage, fuel contamination or the weather. They did discover, however, that the pilot had been drinking the night before the flight and had a blood alcohol content of .081. Inactive cannabis metabolites and analgesics were also in the blood. The report concluded that adverse effects on pilot performance from post-alcohol impairment, recent cannabis use and fatigue could not be discounted as contributing to the factors leading up to the crash.
In 2015 a total of 195 people died on work sites. That is 195 too many. Michael White said in his opinion all workplaces should be alcohol-free. There should be zero tolerance for consuming alcohol and having alcohol in your system while you are at work. With Drug-Safe Communities’ onsite drug testing service this can be made possible.
Is this a contentious statement or one that employers agree with?