“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.