Is methamphetamine a significant workplace hazard?

The Australian Industry Group (AIGroup)  submission to the Australian Government’s Parliamentary Joint Committee on Law Enforcement inquiry into crystal methamphetamine, commonly known as Ice, has been made publicly available.  The submission focuses on the risks to all workplaces, primarily, by imposing non-work statistics onto the workplace, lumping Ice in with other illicit drugs, and relying on anecdotal evidence. This approach is not unique to AiGroup and can also be seen regularly in the mainstream media but such an important Inquiry requires a much higher quality of evidence than anecdotes.

The submission references a recent Australian Crime Commission (ACC) report into Ice saying it:

“… paints a bleak picture for the community and Australian workplaces. This combined with greater ease of access, including in regional areas, places Australian workplaces at risk.

A key requirement for employers seeking to manage safety risks arising from persons attending work affected by Ice is the ability to conduct workplace drug and alcohol testing.” (page 3)

The ACC report refers almost exclusively to the hazards presented to hospital and emergency staff, not by Ice use by staff, and yet is able to link Ice-affected public to the drug testing of workers. The AiGroup submission seems to give a lot of weight to stories that are anecdotal:

“Since the release of the ACC report, it has been anecdotally reported that “ice was the drug of choice for miners” and a former paramedic based in Tasmanian disclosed that she worked under the influence of Ice for 5 years and had never been drug tested at work.” (page 3, links added)

The paramedic article quoted the CEO of Rural Health Tasmania Robert Waterman:

“”The recent national drug survey is showing that around 14 per cent of the population aged over 14 years are using illicit drugs now or have recently used an illicit drug,” he said.

Mr Waterman said it would be naive to think that employed people were not among them.”

There is little statistical doubt that workers have used Ice, but whether they are using it at work is a very important distinction. Another question would be whether those workers are impaired at work?  And is there (non-anecdotal) evidence that workers are using Ice at work and that they are presenting a hazard to themselves and others?

The only evidence that AiGroup, and others, seems to have found is a 2006 factsheet and 2008 report by the National Centre for Education and Training (NCETA) that relate to the same statistics.  The latter states:

“A small minority of workers reported:

  • driving a motor vehicle while under the influence of drugs (4.4%)
  • attending work while under the influence of drugs (2.5%)
  • usually using drugs at work (1.2%).” (page 4)

The 2.5% figure relates to ALL drugs, as does the 1.2%, not just Ice.  The NCETA data shows that cannabis use by workers was 13.4% where methamphetamine use was at 3.9%.  The data also included cocaine and analgesics and brings us closer to answering the questions posed above.

The current debate about the Ice “scourge” is based on the application of non-work data on drug use to the workplace, yet these two sectors have distinctive legal bases and control dynamics.  The statistical group of illicit drugs refernced is broad even though the Parliamentary Inquiry has been established to look specifically at methamphetamine.

The AiGroup submission focuses on drug testing at the workplace even though there is evidence from the National Drug Research Institute (NDRI) that Ice “is only detectable for two or three days after being taken,” rendering drug testing ineffective.

The AiGroup recommends that:

“…there be broader recognition of the role workplace drug and alcohol testing can play in minimising the incidence and frequency of Ice usage in the community.” (page 10)

The current evidence in relation to Ice does not seem to support this recommendation.  It is possible that the Parliamentary Inquiry will uncover such evidence but anecdotal evidence is insufficient and should be questioned whenever it is mentioned. The practice of implying that Ice presents a significant hazard to workers by lumping it in with other illicit drugs is disingenuous.

A more understandable strategy seems to be that advocated by NCETA in its submission to the Inquiry.  NCETA does not discuss Ice use at work but sees the workplace as an opportunity for intervention in Ice as a public health matter:

“The workplace can also provide an effective pathway to treatment for employees as it can overcome major barriers to treatment such as individuals failing to recognise their use is a problem and lack of motivation to address their use.” (page 14)

However employers (and AiGroup members) could ask why they should be the conduit for addressing a public health issue for which they had no role.

The submission by the National Drug Research Institute provides some support to the health promotion/public health intervention, based on research by Allsop, but also states:

“While responses to our more prevalent drugs (e.g. alcohol, tobacco, cannabis) may have relevance to methamphetamine we also need to be cautious in making this assumption and note specific challenges of methamphetamine.” (page 18)

and

“… that while we need interventions tailored to different contexts and settings of use and multifaceted responses, evidence specific to methamphetamine is scant.” (page 18)

The first quote addresses the assumptions and generalisations on managing Ice use and the latter contextualises drug testing into a broader interventional strategy.

There is no doubt that drug, and alcohol, use in the workplace is a hazard that must be addressed but testing alone is not the answer.  The multi-faceted strategy advocated by NDRI is likely to be more effective and sustainable but also much more challenging for employers.  This challenge is not helped by fluffy and inaccurate discussion of the potential impacts of Ice use on worker health safety and welfare.

Kevin Jones

 

 

 

 

 

5 thoughts on “Is methamphetamine a significant workplace hazard?”

  1. I will not get in a car if the person who is driving has been drinking, so there is no way I want to get into a taxi if the driver has been using any for of illegal substance.
    I am flying to America at the end of the year, I trust that the pilot is free of all alcohol or drugs.

    I really have no interest in what anyone says in defence of Ice or any other mind altering chemical my safety and the safety of everyone around me is paramount.

    I am wondering which insurance company is going to offer coverage for any workplace that allows the use of an illegal substance.
    I am also wondering about my right to know that my safety is so little valued that such insurance coverage is possible.

  2. I find it interesting that nowhere is impairment mentioned as the primary reason for drug testing. In that case, it really doesn’t matter how long after use the drug is detectable.

    Focus on impairment and cover risks on site. No one can argue with that, surely.

    1. Tom clearly the AiGroup submission was dominated by testing. Other submissions, and there are not many yet addressing workplace issues, are less strident or reliant on drug testing. I think we may have to wait for the trade union movement to make a submission as they are the strongest advocates for the impairment perspective.

      The challenge, though, is to be definitive on Ice issues as it is such a recent entry to the drug sector. The trade union will need to make a case that the interventions on drug use that they have been applying for over a decade have had some demonstrated benefit. They will also need to decide whether Ice needs its own approach or whether the collective drug and alcohol approach is relevant to Ice use.

  3. Your comments about the application of non work statistics and estimates (genrally based on a smaller cross section of the community being representative of the larger picture certainly are cause for concern, when one considers the level of influence and role such groups who are making the assertions, have in the community. For quite a lengthy time now the media has continued the urban myth of mining in general being people who play hard, work hard, drink hard, do drugs hard, just like the myth on the size of mining equipment – the bigger it is the more dangerous it is!! This sort of approach is confusing and corrupting the real issue and debate. With the level of drug and alcohol testing on mine sites for the majority including randaom, blanket and causal testing regimes as well as the consequences from being caught in such testing, the real rate of breach or offending is minimal when compared to the total group. One must question how much of the ice problem being talked about is recidivist in nature, but no matter how much we hype up the issues, they will not go away until as a nation we accept that the issue is a worldwide problem and a local solution will not fix the problem. Further we all have to acknowledge that the results of such activity have a major impact on the community and families that is not acceptable in any form. Until we have the will and resolve to take a much harder line on the core issue of those who manufacture and supply it for their own ill gotten personal gain (usually without paying taxes as well on their profits), the issue will not go away.

    1. Stephen, one of the issues that OHS professionals need to address is whether to act on the perception of risk or the reality. I suspect some would say that many more workers would have died from asbestos-related diseases if we had waited for “hard” evidence but the evidence of that hazard existed but was ignored or hidden.

      The workplace hazards of Ice remain unknown. The potential hazards are known and are little different from the hazards presented by other impairment and psychosocial issues. I think singling out Ice is a distraction from the multifaceted approach that is required for drugs and alcohol in the workplace.

      Ice use is a major problem for frontline workers such as nurses, paramedics and police but for most other workers the significance of the hazard is undetermined. Yet the Parliamentary Inquiry has been established on a perception that Ice is a major epidemic or scourge.

      I am not convinced it is more of a social issue than alcohol abuse or other drugs, but as this blog is about safety at work, I think we need to be careful that we don’t overstate the workplace potential of Ice.

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