Leading from the top on impairment

Advocates of safety culture regularly profess that it must be lead from the top of the corporate structure down.  This applies a false definition of leadership.  Leadership is innovation, understanding and support regardless of one’s position on the corporate ladder.

It is true that professing leadership and corporate goals should be supported by the appropriate actions but that is often the avoidance of hypocrisy rather than seeking active change. It must be acknowledged that leadership can also come from below  – in the mail rooms, the cellars, the janitors and from the shopfloors.

Workers in many industries are subjected to random drug and alcohol tests.  Often these apply to those workers who operate machinery or drive transport vehicles.  And rightly so.  These workers must undertake their tasks without any impairment of their cognitive functions.  Impairment is a concept that the Australian union movement has struggled with for well over a decade mainly because in the industrial relations world this is close to being “fit for work” and how does one define that?  It also has some relationship to “blaming the worker”.  In occupational health and safety, it is seen as looking after one’s self whilst looking after others and the obligation to do this has existed for decades in OHS legislation.

Impairment is commonly discussed now in terms of driving while drunk or stoned or while using a mobile phone.  But long before this there was “impaired judgement”.  As well as being fit-for-work, people needed to be fit-to-think. 

On 4 December 2008, the New South Wales Health Minister (and former Industrial Relations Minister) John Della Bosca rejected a proposal from the Rail, Bus & Tram Union (RTBU) to “to make breath-test kits available on a voluntary basis to MPs wanting to check their blood alcohol levels before they turn up for late night votes.”

It is reported that the RTBU secretary Nick Lewocki has said 

“All rail workers are subjected to random drug and alcohol tests, an infringement on their personal lives that they are told is necessary due to the safety critical nature of their work. But driving the state is every bit as safety critical, and decisions our politicians make on issues as diverse as health, education and transport policy do affect public lives.” 

Ignoring the political devilment of the RTBU, the comment focuses on being unimpaired when making decisions, regardless of the occupation, work task or corporate position.  The Minister has been put in a difficult position where he can’t be seen as responding to union naughtiness but there is merit in leading from the top and making breath-test kits available.  They are not suggesting random testing or mandatory testing but it is reasonable to expect important decision-makers to be fit-to-think and fit-to-decide.

Perhaps drug testing in the workplace would not be seen as the contentious issue it is if it had already been introduced in the boardroom.  The gesture would not be as empty as the corporate leaders may think particularly leading into the season when sauce and ganders were traditionally eaten.