Drugs and workplace injury

With high standards and stringent policies and procedures, Australia s workplace health and safety record is outstanding. Despite this, workplace injury, subsequent compensation and loss of time continue to be a significant cost to Australian businesses and the wider national economy.

According to Safe Work Australia, employees who make workers compensation claims for a serious injury are absent from work for an average of 12 weeks, and incur significant and ongoing costs for their company and the broader business community. The same report estimates the total direct and indirect costs of workplace injury in Australia at $60 billion annually just under 5% of Australian Gross Domestic Product (GDP).

While there are many factors that influence workplace safety policies, procedures, education, fatigue, management the Australian Drug Foundation estimates alcohol and other drug misuse plays a notable role, costing Australian companies up to $6 billion a year.

Despite the fact many organisations particularly blue collar businesses have implemented stringent drug and alcohol policies, considering drug use is often not top-of-mind when assessing influences on workplace injury or illness. Business Insider Australia reinforces the importance of including drug misuse as one of the top-of-mind considerations when assessing injury and absenteeism, reporting that 62% of people, or almost 300,000 workers, who misuse drugs or alcohol are in full-time employment.

The contribution of drugs to workplace injury and absenteeism

Though fatigue and lapses in concentration play key roles in workplace injury, the International Labour Organisation estimates almost a quarter of injuries at work are directly related to alcohol and other drug use.

While the Australian Drug Foundation estimates the annual cost of absenteeism due to alcohol is between $1.2 and $6 billion, calculating the cost of drug-related absenteeism is significantly more difficult due to the illegal nature of the substances. Despite this, the 2004 National Drug Strategy Household Survey reported 1% of people acknowledged having missed days at work, university or TAFE due to use of illicit drugs. This rate of absenteeism in the workforce-aged population was highest in males aged 18 29, with close to 2% reporting missed days, and slightly less than 1% in the 30 39 year old bracket reporting the same.

In terms of occupation, the highest rates of absenteeism were found in agricultural and horticultural workers, science, building and engineering professionals and similar fields, where approximately 3% of people reported missing work due to illicit drug use. Close to half of workers who used an illicit drug took days off work due to injury or illness in the three months prior to the survey, compared with ten percent less for people who didn t take drugs.

The effect of drugs on employees

Drugs have various effects on people, with some producing high energy reactions and others resulting in lethargy.

Illicit drugs such as cannabis may result in a user experiencing decreased focus and concentration, impaired coordination and depth perception, and difficulty with complex tasks.

For drugs such as methamphetamine or ice, common short-term reactions include decreased fatigue and attention, and increased respiration and heartbeat. Medium-to-longer-term effects include lower attention span and focus, less controlled movement, trouble thinking and aggression.

The side effects of both types of drugs can have a dramatic effect on the functionality of an employee in the workplace, and increase the risk of injury to the user and to their colleagues working around them. Of particular note, the lack of capacity to perform complex tasks or to think clearly, can inhibit a worker s ability to acknowledge or identify risks resulting from their behaviour. While still serious in white collar environments and increasing the potential for harm, in industries that require work with dangerous or heavy machinery or vehicles, effective risk mitigation would require immediate removal of the employee from the floor in order to meet even basic safety standards.

In summary, employers and managers should look out for:

Cannabis

A combination of:

  • Poor coordination
  • Decreased attention span and focus
  • Difficulty with complex tasks
  • Decreased depth perception
  • Slower reaction times
  • Declining motivation
  • Increased appetite

Other illicit drugs, for example Methamphetamines or Ice

A combination of:

  • Sudden and unnatural increases in energy
  • Increased talkativeness
  • Increased respiration and heart beat
  • Unnatural increases in activity
  • Decreased appetite
  • Euphoria
  • Paranoia

Combating workplace drug use

While it is important to have a strong and well-considered workplace drug and alcohol policy, education and environment are crucial factors in combating workplace drug use.

Education about the workplace drug policy, consequences of detection and use, legal ramifications and the effects of drugs on the mind and body should play an important and ongoing role in employee training. Starting with employee induction, education should promote awareness and understanding of the issue, and should be refreshed and updated regularly.

Environment is also a key factor and includes two elements: acceptance of the message by the organisation (employees and management) and openness. In the first instance, creating an atmosphere where drug use is known to be unacceptable means building a culture where both employees and employers are on the lookout for drug use that could compromise their safety. This culture should be carefully balanced with a level of openness that promotes the opportunity for those with a drug misuse problem to approach HR and managers and seek help or treatment as a means of mitigating the risk they pose.

For more on developing a workplace drug policy or building a drug-free environment, visit our Drugs at Work web centre.