Drug abuse at work – podcast interview with Professor Steve Allsop

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The editors of SafetyAtWorkBlog produced SafetyAtWork podcasts several years ago.  These interviews deserve some longevity even though some of the references have dated.  In this context, SafetyAtWorkBlog is re-releasing a podcast from September 2006 on the management of drugs in the workplace. (The podcast is available at SafetyAtWork Podcast – September 2006 )

Professor Steven Allsop is a leading researching on the use of drugs at work and socially.  Steven is also the Director of the National Drug Research Institute.  In this interview he discusses amphetamine use, how to broach the issue of drug use with a worker and drug policies in industrial sectors.

Please let SafetyAtWorkBlog know of your thoughts on this podcast.

Kevin Jones

Mobile Phones and Driving

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Work tools, such as the company car and the mobile phone, can be fun and functional but when used at the same time, the combination is deadly. 

According to media reports a study by the Federal Department of Transport survey of 1500 drivers has shown that 

[in Victoria] about 61 per cent said they had used a mobile while driving, up from 47 per cent in 2005…. More than one-quarter admitted reading a text message while driving, while 14 per cent said they had sent one.
Yet 42 per cent of drivers nationally supported any law banning the use of hands-free mobiles while driving.
Victoria Police caught more than 1800 drivers for mobile phone offences during the holiday period.

SafetyAtWorkBlog has mentioned previously that road safety research rarely logs whether a vehicle is being used for work purposes.  The full survey report is  not yet available and, to a large extent, the media reports have focused on activities related to the Australian h0liday season – alcohol use as well as texting.  

When it is available, SafetyAtWorkBlog will report on any data that could indicate the use of work vehicles as it is inaccurate to simply use road safety data as an overlay of occupational activities.

The use of company vehicles is a complicated area due to the status of the vehicles changing depending on whether the vehicle is a “pool vehicle” or whether the vehicle is able to be used for private purposes.  The one vehicle could be both a work vehicle and private vehicle at different times of the day.  This is the challenge for OHS professionals – to deal with a workplace and an employee who is neither of these 100% of the time.  Unless this status is clarified, any potential policy on mobile phone use whilst driving remains problematic.  Yet the hazard remains.

safe_driving-coverWorkSafe Victoria released a safe driving guide in November 2008 that acknowledges the hazard but clearly leaves it up to the employer to determine the appropriate policy:

The TAC  (Transport Accident Commission) and WorkSafe recommend that hands free calls be kept to a minimum and reserved for emergency type calls.
Handheld mobile phone use is illegal and should not be considered under any circumstances while driving.  Texting or reading texts or caller ID should not be done at any time whilst driving.

Without definitive advice from regulatory bodies but with mounting evidence of the heightening risk of injury and property damage, it will be a brave company that bans the use of mobile phones whilst driving (the ideal OHS control measure).  However, this is one of the risks faced when evidence of hazards is called for but we don’t like the evidence.

Leading from the top on impairment

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Advocates of safety culture regularly profess that it must be lead from the top of the corporate structure down.  This applies a false definition of leadership.  Leadership is innovation, understanding and support regardless of one’s position on the corporate ladder.

It is true that professing leadership and corporate goals should be supported by the appropriate actions but that is often the avoidance of hypocrisy rather than seeking active change. It must be acknowledged that leadership can also come from below  – in the mail rooms, the cellars, the janitors and from the shopfloors.

Workers in many industries are subjected to random drug and alcohol tests.  Often these apply to those workers who operate machinery or drive transport vehicles.  And rightly so.  These workers must undertake their tasks without any impairment of their cognitive functions.  Impairment is a concept that the Australian union movement has struggled with for well over a decade mainly because in the industrial relations world this is close to being “fit for work” and how does one define that?  It also has some relationship to “blaming the worker”.  In occupational health and safety, it is seen as looking after one’s self whilst looking after others and the obligation to do this has existed for decades in OHS legislation.

Impairment is commonly discussed now in terms of driving while drunk or stoned or while using a mobile phone.  But long before this there was “impaired judgement”.  As well as being fit-for-work, people needed to be fit-to-think. 

On 4 December 2008, the New South Wales Health Minister (and former Industrial Relations Minister) John Della Bosca rejected a proposal from the Rail, Bus & Tram Union (RTBU) to “to make breath-test kits available on a voluntary basis to MPs wanting to check their blood alcohol levels before they turn up for late night votes.”

It is reported that the RTBU secretary Nick Lewocki has said 

“All rail workers are subjected to random drug and alcohol tests, an infringement on their personal lives that they are told is necessary due to the safety critical nature of their work. But driving the state is every bit as safety critical, and decisions our politicians make on issues as diverse as health, education and transport policy do affect public lives.” 

Ignoring the political devilment of the RTBU, the comment focuses on being unimpaired when making decisions, regardless of the occupation, work task or corporate position.  The Minister has been put in a difficult position where he can’t be seen as responding to union naughtiness but there is merit in leading from the top and making breath-test kits available.  They are not suggesting random testing or mandatory testing but it is reasonable to expect important decision-makers to be fit-to-think and fit-to-decide.

Perhaps drug testing in the workplace would not be seen as the contentious issue it is if it had already been introduced in the boardroom.  The gesture would not be as empty as the corporate leaders may think particularly leading into the season when sauce and ganders were traditionally eaten.