Drug and alcohol testing for Australian construction sites

On 18 September 2015 Senator Eric Abetz introduced amendments to the Building Code so that drug and alcohol testing will be required on construction sites.  In his media release he states that:

“The construction industry is a high risk industry where the risks associated with the use of heavy machinery, mobile equipment, working in congested areas and working from heights, are accentuated by the effects of alcohol and drug use.”

Following this argument, would not greater safety benefit be gained by addressing the risks posed by machinery, working at heights and in congested areas?  Drug and alcohol testing will do little to reduce these risks, or more correctly, hazards.  Being impaired may make it more likely for a worker to fall while working at heights but creative and safe design could eliminate the risk of working at heights altogether.

Drug and alcohol testing is fraught with complexity and objections, many that are unrelated to eliminating or minimising harm.  These complexities and objections need to be explained by the Australian Government so that the safety significance of drug and alcohol testing  is understood by those being tested, those administering the tests and the families of those who may be sent home after a positive test result or those who may have been sacked.

One of the quotes attributed to Senator Abetz, the former Workplace Relations Minister, in the media statement is

“It is simply an unacceptable risk to the health and safety of employees and the public to have workers affected by drugs or alcohol on construction sites..”

Many of the initiatives relate to the (still-to-be-quantified) drug and alcohol risks posed by individuals.  This seems to be the main approach for the Australian Government at the moment.  Individuals are easier to prosecute, individual breaches of laws are easier to identify and the focus on individuals imply that there is a lot of enforcement action over a long and, most important, visible timeframe.  The alternative, which is also required by OHS laws, the pursuit and investigation of corporate, structural and managerial practices is much more time consuming, more technically challenging and much less visible and, therefore, less politically attractive

Senator Abetz states that:

“The Government is committed to the Building Code to ensure taxpayer funded sites operate safely and efficiently, and projects are delivered on time and on budget.”

This is a classic application of neoliberalism to workplace safety – the blending of

“… traditional liberal concerns for social justice with an emphasis on economic growth.”

The neoliberals would argue that the government should set the rules (if they really, really have to, at all) and the employers will apply them and comply.  This reflects OHS laws and the primary duty on employers to provide a safe and healthy work environment but Abetz’ quote above also illustrates (or ignores) a major OHS threat – the setting of budget and time constraints to a level where worker safety cannot be guaranteed.

Drug and alcohol testing will be applied to an increasing range of industries this century but justifying this on the basis of safety and risk is still an uncertain strategy as changes are more likely to be from ideology than quantifiable evidence.

The Australian construction industry could justifiably ask “why us?” The sector has achieved substantial improvements in worker safety and construction methodologies, particularly, in the last twenty years.

Senator Abetz describes this industry as high risk but what he means is it is an industry with a high number of hazards.  The hazards he lists in the first quote above can be accentuated by drug and alcohol use but as the hazards themselves are being reduced so is the significance of drug and alcohol.

By focusing on the individual, the topical and the political, Abetz diminishes the safety achievements of the construction industry. Being fit-for-work is much more than being free of drugs or alcohol.  It would be good to see a detailed and fresh plan from the Government that addresses workers being fit-for-work and employers providing work environments that are safe-for-work.

Kevin Jones



7 thoughts on “Drug and alcohol testing for Australian construction sites”

  1. I agree with you that drug and alcohol testing is necessary for Australian construction sites but not only for construction sites it is required in every field. Btw thanks for sharing such a nice blog.

  2. kevin, drugs and alcohol are a problem with our society full stop! Employers are paying the cost of this through their work cover premiums in many way including the cause and effect on the spouses and siblings of those on drugs. Our conventional policing methods are not working or having an affect against the war on drugs and how much it cripples our society so if testing at work is a mechanism for taking this issue which as a single risk has greater financial and physical outcomes for society than any single piece of machinery I say great! Bring it into ALL our workplaces!

  3. I think it is a good move and we should be supporting zero BADC levels in all workplaces and roads…then there is no grey areas.

    I think the other risks (which I feel should be kept and handled separate) such as addressing the risks posed by machinery, working at heights and in congested areas have all been well regulated and addressed. The cost of practicality http://src0001.blogspot.com.au/2015/09/the-true-cost-of-practicable.html I feel is the key reason as to why such regulation is not being followed to appropriate standards by organisations. Organisations are increasingly skipping on plant and equipment maintenance due to decreasing profit margins. Only reacting to this lax attitude if being forced to after external forces.

    We also have to keep in mind that there are many reasons why people have events at work, but because we don’t have simple testing methods ‘yet’, we cannot manage these issues. I think more workers come to work on Monday morning more tired than affected by BAD (I am not sure this is an acronym, but BAD suits Blood Alcohol Drugs…)

  4. Kevin, although I don’t necessarily agree with the policy, I would argue that use of the phrase “the risks associated with the use of heavy machinery, mobile equipment, working in congested areas and working from heights, are accentuated by the effects of alcohol and drug use.” Is ok.

    Risk = Consequence x Likelihood

    Although the consequence might not change with the consumption of drugs and alcohol, the likelihood of injury is almost certainly increased (eg working around mobile plant while intoxicated). Hence the risk is also almost certainly increased.

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