Australia: Cabbage Salad and Safety: Episode 6 - Drugs and Alcohol and the Workplace (Part 1)

Cabbage Salad and Safety is a series of podcasts based around conversations with Siobhan Flores-Walsh, a work health and safety lawyer with Corrs Chambers Westgarth, and Kevin Jones, a workplace safety consultant and editor of the award-winning SafetyAtWorkBlog. Each episode will focus on one or two safety topics.

In Episode 6, Natasha Jager of the Australian Drug Foundation joins Siobhan and Kevin in conversation about the safety management issues related to alcohol and drugs. They discuss the legal, business and union perspectives on drug and alcohol testing, and also take a look at what could be the "sleeper issue" – the link between alcohol and drug use and workplace psychological/mental illness issues.

We welcome enquiries and comments about the Cabbage Salad and Safety podcast, so please send them to Siobhan or Kevin.

These podcasts do not provide legal or other advice. Obtain legal or other professional advice as required.


Podcast – Cabbage Salad and Safety

Episode Six:

Corrs Partner Siobhan Flores-Walsh (Workplace Health & Safety Lawyer) and Kevin Jones (Safety Journalist)

KEVIN Good evening and welcome to the latest episode of the Cabbage Salad and Safety Podcast. I am Kevin Jones. We've got Siobhan Flores-Walsh on the phone on the other line. How are you Siobhan?

SIOBHAN Good day Kevin how are you?

KEVIN Well pretty good pretty good. Looking forward to talking about drugs and alcohol and workplace safety tonight. It is going to be sort of an intense evening conversation I think.

SIOBHAN Yes looking forward to it and we have Natasha Jager from the Alcohol and Drug Foundation with us to provide us with some expert information around this issue.

KEVIN Yes so welcome Tash.

NATASHA Thanks Kevin, thanks Siobhan.

KEVIN One of the things I thought we might do straight off is deal with the elephant in the room – which is not me – but is the issue of alcohol and drug testing because it is something that you just can't discuss this topic without bringing up this issue. So Siobhan I wanted to chuck it across to you for this one and just give us an idea of what the current status of drug and alcohol testing is as it relates to work, health and safety?

SIOBHAN Look I think we can basically say that workplaces fall into camps around this issue. There are those workplaces which have drug and alcohol testing as a matter of statutory regulation or perhaps by policy which is already been introduced. The second camp are those workplaces which don't have random drug and alcohol testing and they might be checking about whether or not they want to introduce it or whether they should introduce it.

It is important to understand I think it is quite complex from both a health and safety perspective and from the employment and industrial relations perspective and this evening we really don't want to go into that technicality.

I think what we do want to focus on is the fact that regardless of whether or not you do have drug and alcohol testing, that will only ever be a part of the solution for employers trying to deal with these issues. We want to focus on the other side of the equation. One of the other things which business can do to mitigate against the effects of drug and alcohol consumed at home or drug and alcohol consumed at work. So that's where think where our focus will be this evening.

KEVIN So Siobhan can you just give me a quick idea of what the hazards are that can appear in a workplace as a result of drug and alcohol use at work or at home.

SIOBHAN I think that the hazards are multiple and I suppose if I might frame it a little bit differently. When clients come to see us about this as an issue, it tends to fall into I suppose four key areas. They want to know about what's needed in high risk industries so industries like mining, construction, agriculture, rail where we're talking about lots of big capital equipment which can really cause damage. Then what they need to do in industries where the risk is less obvious.

And of course I am only focusing at the moment on physical risk but there is also risk within our workplaces where people are affected by drugs and alcohol from a psychological perspective. Then people want to talk to me about what do you do about alcohol at work sponsored functions. So are there risks created for workers and I think we can talk a bit about that.

Another issue where people are becoming increasingly interested is the fact that organisation feel like business development marketing functions are nearly always accompanied by alcohol and of course that creates a whole range of risks for workers. You can control workers reasonably easily though but it is much more complex when your clients are drinking alcohol. So there are lots of issues to consider there particularly given the expansion of WHS liability to people who are affected by what we are doing within our workplaces.

I guess the final point and there is a lot to get through if we can, clients are very concerned about the fact that the stresses and strains of work can in fact cause their workers to mitigate the effects of those stresses and strains through the use of alcohol and I guess the really obvious example of that are fly-in/fly-out with very heavy alcohol consumption associated with that form of work and then just plain old long hours of work intensification. So it is really quite a big circle and all of these issues are quite integrated.

KEVIN I think also that there are always two elements to the hazard at work. It is the hazard from these activities to the person whose undertaken them, but also the hazards that that person presents to others. So Tash from the Alcohol and Drug Foundation's point of view, you're in the workplace services element of the Foundation. Is what Siobhan's been saying echo the concerns?

NATASHA Absolutely. We are getting enquiries from a wide range of industries. As Siobhan pointed out, high risk industries but as well as those white collar typical office environments are realising that it shouldn't just be up to the high risk industries to be addressing alcohol and drugs. It can affect all workplaces across all industries.

KEVIN So what advice can the Alcohol and Drug Foundation – you're in workplace services so you have programs or information or pamphlets or apps or whatever you've got specifically for workplace management of these issues?

NATASHA that's correct Kevin. We focus on the prevention side of alcohol and drug misuse. We don't tell people they should stop drinking or stop taking drugs because we know they're just going to do it. It is about implementing measures from an employer's perspective to prevent and reduce that harm.

Things like educating your employees on how long it takes for alcohol to leave the system, so they pass that breath test in the morning if they do testing. It is implementing education measures as well as having comprehensive policies to let employees know what support is available should they need that.

KEVIN Siobhan, in companies that do have these policies and do have these practices, are they adhered to? Is this area sort of fairly compliant in terms of people following company policies on this?

SIOBHAN I don't think so. I think that once again you've got the environments where there is mandatory drug and alcohol testing and you've got the environments where there isn't. So in those mandatory environments there are still people that are turning up to work and taking the risk, and we do have episodes where even in high risks industries, incidents occur it can be directly related to drug and alcohol use. In those other environments, of course it is going to be much more difficult to get caught.

I think what is truly is interesting about the approach that Natasha has just outlined is that it is quite different I think to the focus which workplaces have at the moment. Workplaces for the most part are still very focused on putting in place policies and rules that control and say you shall not do X, Y & Z and what I am understanding Natasha to say it is really taking or treating employees I guess in a more adult way of saying look these are the rules at work but by the way, this is what's happening to your body, put the two together and we will make it work.

Because you know my observation is that the control approach is just not going to work alone so that's why I am quite attracted to the approach of the Alcohol and Drug Foundation.

NATASHA Absolutely. But it also addresses the morale issue of being told what to do or what not to do and it is involving the employees in helping with a solution and helping identify and reducing that risk at work. So absolutely.

SIOBHAN I think it is interesting it ties very much in and I don't know if it is sort of jumping subjects here but Natasha you and I worked together a little bit in relation to a function recently so this is really on that area of where our call is being used as part of this development and marketing. The focus of the particular organisation we were looking at was they knew there was risks associated with the provision of alcohol in this context and their focus was well what do we do to deal with the inevitable issues of over consumption.

Given the numbers and everything else involved controlling after the event clearly not going to work. So perhaps you would like to talk about the approach I guess that you took which was much more about controlling it at the source.

NATASHA Absolutely thanks Siobhan. The Alcohol and Drug Foundation have a program called "Good Hosts" which is a program that works in the organising and the developing stages of an event whereby we implement a number of measures in fact there is 87 in total as they work as behind the scene measures to reduce intoxication at the event.

So the guests and patrons attending the event won't notice anything different but these are little things that organisations can be doing prior to the event actually occurring to reduce the likelihood of people getting drunk and becoming intoxicated.

KEVIN But Tash when we go organise these functions at the function room at the pub or whatever else, I mean the facilities that we've booked already have responsible serving of alcohol or they've got security guards sometimes to deal with drunks, why does the employer need to take on any responsibility, we've booked it out, the function room is looking after the alcohol consumption.

NATASHA Yes that's a very good point Kevin. We find that events, when you book them, they believe a good event means an unlimited supply of alcohol and plying everyone with as much alcohol as possible.

KEVIN You bet, I mean we put the card on the bar and it just goes until it we run out of the limit. That's always how it's been.

NATASHA Yes absolutely. But it is coming to a point where we do need to take more responsibility as an employer on what they are actually providing and what message are they sending to their employees. But also employees need to take on some of that responsibility. But by implementing measures as part of the good host program, we can I guess assist the guests in making the right decision.

Some of these measures include providing food as soon as the event starts and the alcohol is free, there should be food available so people are eating while they are drinking. It is going to reduce how fast they become drunk. Provide alternative measures to alcohol, don't just make it water and orange juice as available, provide mocktails where no alcohol is going to be included but it is interesting and people go I might try that just to see what it tastes like, they're reducing the amount of alcohol they consume. Not allowing people to self-serve.

Don't have bottles of alcohol on the table where they can top up their drink because by golly I bet you they're going to pour it all the way to the very very top. We need to be managing these things to help them still serve alcohol, but just help them to make the right decisions.

KEVIN Just on that, I went to a big ethnic wedding a couple of years ago and it was the first wedding I've been to where at the reception there was three bottles of spirits on the table that were just seem to be a symbol of hospitality and welcoming you know have a good time and all that sort of stuff. And some of the people that I was with, took advantage of the hospitality and it was atrocious.

But it was those symbols, those signs where you want to sort of you're welcome have a good time we encourage it. It doesn't have to be four bottles of whatever, it is something more than that and that's what the Foundation is talking about.

NATASHA Absolutely. It is important to make alcohol not the sole focus or the entertainment of the event. Providing other measures to entertain your guests other than just free alcohol and unlimited amounts of alcohol, it is shifting their attention away from just sitting around and drinking. Provide games, provide other forms of stimulation.

KEVIN Can I ask Siobhan something specific on this. Quite often work functions go on, they sort of have a close off time an end time - the lights come on and everybody goes off and then there's people who carry on afterwards and keep drinking. When they move on out of a work function, are they still at a work function or has the status changed?

SIOBHAN That's a really tricky question and the case law is really quite ambiguous about it and I think there is a couple of matters I can refer you to. But long story short, we recommend to clients that they actually give specific instructions about those kick on events and that they actually deal with those kick on events in their planning. That is they advise the staff and if it is a client function, that they remind people that after the event it is important that they are taking care of each other. That they have identified people to ensure it's not just about driving but ensuring people getting into cabs because it is not terribly hard to make the stretch that if someone gets inebriated at a work sponsored event and then kicks on to another event and is Natasha ured after that event that could be dangerous. It will not always be the case because it is going be a little fact dependent but there is no doubt the risk is there. And I think that the risk is increasing rather than decreasing. It needs to be taken into account.

KEVIN I remember going to a Christmas party where the first time I was given a taxi voucher by the company to go home safely and we took three or four people home safely. They had never had that before and I felt really valued because people weren't just wanting to have me at the Christmas party but they wanted me to get home safely. So it was a really good move. I know not everybody can afford that. But they are really thinking about the end results of the function as well.

SIOBHAN I think that if organisations can't afford that then they can't afford to have people access alcohol. But I guess the other side of it that I guess I more and more attracted to the sort of program that Natasha has been outlining. I think that the taxi's after the event is a very sensible thing to do but really we should be far more focusing on this issue around making those alternate drinks available, distracting people from alcohol.

Because there is no doubt that people do turn to alcohol just because they are a little bit bored and I suppose in some sense is that kind of also brings us back to some of the issues in the workplace proper. We have seen for example scenarios where people are in violence where they don't have family around so might have the weekends to do something in a country town where not much is available so they turn to alcohol. I would be quite interested to sort of know what does the Alcohol and Drug Foundation have to say around things like – the contribution of long hours and increased use of drugs and alcohol even if it outside the workplace you have got the scenario with the nature of the work contributing to effectively drug taking which is going to have health issues of itself or even if it doesn't it can come back into the workplace.

NATASHA Absolutely Siobhan you are spot on. Workplace causes a lot of I guess stress for a number of workers out there, depending on the type of work that they are doing. I guess we need to remember that people don't use a lot of drugs to make themselves feel bad. They are doing it to feel good. They are sometimes self-medicating with a drink or to get over a stressful day or to try and forget about some things. Or they might be illegal or legal drugs. We need to remember that there is an issue that they are trying to get away from, let that be personal or work issue.

There are some things that we have identified with working with a number of our clients. Shift work is a significant cause of people misusing. Their mates are working during the day and so what else do they have to do when all of their friends are working, go to the pub and have a drink. We know that the deadline pressures in the corporate environment and the stress as I said before that people we are finding are using amphetamines to stay awake so they can meet those deadlines. But then they are on such a high at the end that they need to then use alcohol or smoke a joint or use cannabis to help them relax and get themselves to sleep. But we need to look at the work life balance of the industries that we are dealing with and understanding we need to be helping employees have that work life balance that will not only increase productivity but also morale in the workplace. Which is only going to be a good thing for our employees.

SIOBHAN How realistic do find that though when you, what is the appetite for organisations, they are coming to you with a particular issue. Perhaps there are very high levels of alcohol or whatever the issue is and you in a sense going back to them with an answer which is quite difficult to implement. So I suppose it is almost one mirroring the other drugs and alcohol are often a short term response to stress and I guess there is quick fixes being sought to the alcohol problem as well. How often does it actually get taken up?

NATASHA It is really interesting because the industries and the companies we work with really differ. You have some really large international companies that are clients and they really just want to tick the box and then you have got a small father and son company with only ten employees and they are wanting to take a full comprehensive approach. It really comes down to management.

I am talking the person in charge, the CEO, but also down to those middle managers because if middle management aren't reinforcing the behaviours of the organisation and the values of the organisation then nothing is going to change. As much as the CEO can say, don't let anyone work beyond 7:00 pm, it's up to middle management to be enforcing that.

This podcast does not give legal or other professional advice and its contents should not be relied upon as such. Formal legal and other professional advice should be sought in particular matters.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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