Aussies wasted at work
August 06, 2006 10:40pm
A NEW study has exposed the alarming extent of illegal drug use by Australian workers and sparked calls for drug-testing in the workplace.
The research found 17 per cent of employees are illegal drug-users, with more than 250,000 taking drugs while at work.
Hospitality employees, tradespeople and construction workers were the most likely to be stoned on the job.
The results are backed up by these photographs taken by The Sunday Telegraph last week, showing construction site workers smoking marijuana bongs during a "smoko" break.
The scaffolders took regular drug-breaks in a vehicle in plain view of passers-by before climbing back on to rigs up to three-storeys high.
Across all industries, cannabis is the drug of choice followed by amphetamines, ecstasy, painkillers and cocaine, according to the National Centre for Education and Training on Addiction at Flinders University.
Published today for the first time, the study is based on a national drug survey of 30,000 Australians in 2004 and is the first to break down drug use by industry in Australia.
Hospitality workers are the heaviest users of illegal drugs, with 31 per cent admitting to using drugs outside of work hours in the previous year.
Construction workers were the second-heaviest users (24.1 per cent) followed by retail workers (20.7 per cent).
Those most likely to take illegal drugs while on the job are hospitality workers (7.7 per cent), followed by construction (4.2 per cent) and transport (3.2 per cent).
Translated into numbers, this means almost 100,000 workers in these industries alone are getting stoned at work.
On three days last week, The Sunday Telegraph witnessed two scaffolders at a Randwick demolition site smoke marijuana before, during and after work in a ute parked next to the work site.
One of the scaffolders photographed admitted to using drugs on the job.
"I know I done the wrong thing; a couple of us blokes had a smoke at lunchtime and now that's the end of me," he said.
"I know a lot of people have a beer at lunch. But this is frowned upon by society, I suppose, because it's an illegal drug at the end of the day."
The co-author of the study, Dr Ken Pidd, said that the true extent of the drug problem in workplaces may, in fact, be worse than reported because some respondents may not have admitted to illicit drug use.
Dr Pidd said drug use increased the risk of workplace injury or death because it affected concentration, judgment and reaction times, both on and off sites.
"We estimate between three and 11 per cent of accidents are related to workplace drug and alcohol use," he said.
The findings will ignite the debate between employer groups and unions over the place of random and mandatory drug tests in the workplace.
Random drug testing is uncommon in most Australian industries, apart from transport.
State industrial laws do not require mandatory drug-testing even after accidents or fatalities, except for transport workers such as train drivers and pilots.
Under the Occupational Health and Safety Act, the liability on employees was very light, Employers First chief executive Garry Brack said.
"The courts go very easy on employees, the Government is silent on the subject, and unions are always determined to demonstrate - even where workers were plainly negligent or doing stupid things - that somehow the employer was at fault."
Unions say drug-testing is not the most effective way to combat drug abuse in the workplace.
"You can tell if a person is impaired or intoxicated on the job," Unions NSW occupational health and safety officer Mary Yaager said.
"Drug-testing is not effective. You are better off observing employees and actually training supervisors in drug evaluation.
"You're not going to test someone every single morning before they start work."
Mr Brack favours a more hardline approach, saying it was equally impractical for employers to constantly observe workers.
The NSW Government supports testing where a risk assessment has identified the need, it has the agreement of employers and workers, and is part of a comprehensive alcohol and other drugs program.
"Privacy, confidentiality and the legal position of employees and management need to be considered," a spokesman for Industrial Relations Minister John Della Bosca said.
WorkCover's employer guide for establishing a workplace drug and alcohol policy is under review.