Addressing drug and alcohol problems at work

ACTU policy provides a fair and consultative approach to addressing drug and alcohol problems in the workplace.

The ACTU has launched a policy to guide employers and employees on managing alcohol and other drug (AOD) problems in the workplace.

Developed with input from an AOD working group comprising union representatives – including NSWNA OHS Officer, Mary McLeod, The Alcohol and Other Drugs (AOD) in the Workplace Policy was endorsed in December 2006.

The AOD working group was formed at the 2004 ACTU/Unions NSW Drug, Alcohol and Fatigue Seminar, with the aim to create a nationwide union position and policy on AOD problems in the workplace.

‘Prior to 2001 there was very little research on workplace drug and alcohol issues in Australia,’ said Mary. ‘The limited research showed that action commonly involved a pre-occupation with the detection of substances rather than looking at the bigger health and safety issues.’

After extensive research, the group developed four main principles that steered the direction of the policy: a focus on impairment; a strong education component; non-punitive processes; and a rehabilitation component. ‘The emphasis is on respect, confidentiality and the rights of workers to be supported if they demonstrate a problem,’ said Mary.

‘The “impairment approach” does not discriminate, it acknowledges other workplace risk factors and is preventative.’

According to Mary McLeod, the new policy provides a solid framework for both workers and employers in addressing AOD problems at work.

‘The workplace seems to be becoming the “social watchdog”, with more time and money being spent on trying to detect the use of substances, rather than exploring whether performance is affected or whether there are broader health and safety risks at work,’ said Mary.

She said an impairment focus more accurately assesses the impact of AOD use, rather than testing, which detects the presence but not the affects of drugs on performance. For example, marijuana can be detected weeks after it was consumed.

‘Most impairment in the workplace is not due to alcohol and drug use but due to other factors such as fatigue, chemicals, heat, noise and stress.

‘The hours and demands of nursing are a strong example of how impairment can be a direct result of one’s role and working environment. Fatigue and stress are definitely issues for nurses.

‘With better recognition and understanding of what causes impairment at work, direct and effective action can be taken to minimise the problems,’ said Mary.

NSWNA Assistant General Secretary Judith Kiejda said the NSWNA is opposed to workplace drug and alcohol testing of nurses because of privacy concerns. The costs are high and the cost benefits have not been measured.

The ACTU policy treats workplace alcohol and other drugs problems as an impairment issue, within the broad context of OHS risks in the workplace.

‘The NSWNA position is that drugs, alcohol and work do not mix. If affected by drugs or alcohol, nurses are advised to stay at home and seek the educative and rehabilitative support that is offered by their employer,’ Judith said.

Steps to addressing AOD issues at work

The ACTU supports the development a drug and alcohol policy that:

  • is impairment based
  • has an adequate educational component
  • is coordinated jointly by employers, workers and their representatives
  • is non-punitive and supportive
  • has rehabilitation as a key component
  • provides a safe and productive work environment.