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)
“… 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.