Front page drug testing article is marketing

An article last week touched briefly on the issue of the effect of synthetic drugs in the workplace in the context of drug and alcohol testing.  The Australian newspaper on 28 September 2015 contained a front page article (paywalled) about mining company concerns over synthetic drugs at work, however it is an article that deserves greater analysis before anyone considers this as part of an evidence base as it is creatively constructed and relies on statements from a toxicologist working for drug testing laboratory.

The front page article entitled “Miners in synthetic drug blitz” states:

“Mining giants BHP and Rio Tinto are among a growing number of companies asking drug detection labs to create tests for synthetic drugs, raising concerns workers are increasingly under the influence of designer compounds imported from Southeast Asia.”

These two major mining companies are only two of many and are undertaking reasonable actions in anticipation of a potential or growing risk. The journalist says that such a situation is “raising concerns” about drug use by workers.  The raising of concerns is substantially different from evidence of workers “increasingly under the influence of designer compounds”.

These concerns have been raised by Andrew Leibie, described in the article as a toxicologist working for Safe Work Laboratories, a company whose only business is drug testing. Significantly Leibie’s LinkedIn profile lists his title as “National Marketing Director”.  Leibie also seems to be a favorite information source for the journalist, Verity Edwards, as she wrote about Safe Work Laboraties’ services in the same newspaper only a fortnight earlier.

In that earlier article, after mentioning workplace drug testing data in Europe and the United States, Leibie said

“…testing in construction, manufacturing, warehousing, logistics and transport shows up to 10 per cent of the workforce record a positive the first time they are tested, meaning up to 100,000 people are turning up to work affected by drugs or alcohol each day in construction alone.”

Neither the article or Safe Work Laboratories’ website provides any source for this statement.

A spokesperson for BHP Billiton is quoted in the 28 September 2015 article but makes no reference to synthetic drugs.  According to the journalist the  spokeswoman said

“the company provided testing, drug education and awareness training and support for people seeking treatment for alcohol and drug-related issues.”

Such a position is standard practice in many companies, especially in mining and resource companies.

Leibie may be right in all that he says about drug and alcohol testing at the workplace but such articles, whether they be on the front page of a national newspaper or an “exclusive”, need to be read very carefully so as to avoid a brief read being interpreted as evidence of a problem, and that interpretation becoming an accepted fact through poorly-informed conversations.

In the area of drug and alcohol testing in the workplace, the strongest argument for controlling the hazard of drug-related impairment comes from independent evidence of the use of drugs and alcohol in the workplace and Australia is still gathering that data.  The current scarcity of evidence on drug and alcohol testing at work was discussed in a July 2014 blog article and remains relevant today, particularly in the context of marketing dressed up as news.

Kevin Jones


Categories advertising, BHP Billiton, chemicals, drug testing, evidence, health, media, OHS, research, risk, safety

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