Australia: Cabbage salad and safety: Episode 6 - Drugs and alcohol and the workplace (Part 2)

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, Part 2 of our discussion with Natasha Jager of the Australian Drug Foundation, we look more closely at party drugs and prescription drugs.

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), Kevin Jones (Safety Journalist) and Natasha Jager (Australian Drug Foundation).

SIOBHAN: Natasha one thing that interests me and I guess mainly because you give alcohol but I just didn't come up with other drugs as well is that you've got say for example a worker who doesn't drink that often but has a huge night out and they turn up the next day and their blood alcohol is probably not over the limit but they clearly are impaired so they kind of do pose a bit of a hazard in the workplace. But then on the other hand you've got your functioning alcoholics who might go through two bottles a night but the bodies become pretty tolerant to it, it probably doing long term damage but they are actually quite functional in the workplace.

Can you talk to us about how these two I guess different approaches to drugs and alcohol in particular in the workplace affected and how you've maybe dealt with?

NATASHA: Yes thanks Siobhan I guess what you are talking about there is, is fitness for work, fitness for work on by the functioning user and also through to the recreational user. We need to remember that fitness for work encompasses a wide range of things including actually having alcohol and drugs in your system but even safety is still at risk even if there aren't any alcohol or drugs in your system whereby people are tired and fatigued they are not thinking clearly, their concentration levels are down which is what you would find in both the functioning user and the recreational user.

A difference with someone who is using more frequently that's their standard behaviour. People except that their standard of work and operational level is that's what they provide whereby they know it's because they consumed alcohol the night before, that they're not performing at 100% but because they do that often you can see that as the peer or as their manager. But I think what we need to be realising is that safety in the workplace is beyond being impaired. We need to be thinking about fitness for work and the hangover and comedown affect. Even though the party pills are being taken out, are no longer in your system the long lasting effects can last for hours and days afterwards depending on how they partied.

SIOBHAN: You know that's really interesting. I started to talk about alcohol but you've mentioned party pills and I guess for those of us that are over 20, 50 we don't necessarily understand the whole party drug scene and so it's quite interesting for me to understand that you have younger people who are taking a party drug and they turn up to work quite depleted and it produces obvious behaviour which I don't necessarily understand but I also don't necessarily recognise so I would recognise somebody who is hung over but the whole party drug thing has quite a different affect.

NATASHA: You are correct. I guess it depends on when they've taken the drug. As I said before some stressful work environments people are taking the party pills to keep themselves awake and to go harder and to go longer at work so the signs and symptoms you'd be looking out for because party drugs are stimulants you'd be looking for hyperactivity, increased alertness, people who are overly excited and that have a lot of energy that is unusual for a person. Whereas somebody who may be coming down, so party pills depending on what they take and how much they take generally only last a few hours. After about four or five hours it could easily be out of their system or the effects have subsided and then you are looking at someone who is fatigued, their grumpy, they are not wanting to engage with others, they are withdrawing because they are coming down from an awesome high and they are starting to essentially crash and so you are looking for very similar symptoms to someone being hungover.

KEVIN: It must be a very difficult conversation though or confronting conversation. I just wonder how, I don't know how I'd be able to – I could start a general conversation with somebody but if it's something that's particularly oh I don't know something I haven't experienced like Siobhan said how do I both recognise it but how do I talk to somebody when they know I am an old fart and doesn't know anything about modern life how do I start that conversation? It must be a real challenge for managers and supervisors.

SIOBHAN: That's a great question Kevin we have a number of clients that ask us that and ask us for training in this area. Managers know that their team – they're responsible for their team and that they have to intervene but when it comes to actually doing it they have no idea what to say and how to actually enact it. We recommend and encourage managers to focus on the behaviour and not the drug. See the person and not the drug.

KEVIN: So I shouldn't say "gees Fred you looked wacked out what have you been taking" I should sort of just say well you know – what have you been doing, how's it all going and start with conversation and get those clues.

SIOBHAN: Absolutely Kevin that's exactly right. Don't be asking them if they are an alcoholic or are they addicted to ice or something like because you are going to be judging the person first of all but second of all you are going to get their back up, they are going to get defensive, you want to facilitate an open discussion and to encourage them to actually be honest with you and for them to be telling you if they are putting safety at risk. They need to be focussing on the behaviour.

Talk about the signs that you're seeing that made you believe that they are taking something. Don't talk about what they are actually using. Ask them is there anything that you can do to help them. What is going on in their life? It could just be, they may not be taking anything at all. They might have a six month old at home that isn't giving them enough time to get sleep at night but having that open discussion will make you a better manager and more approachable to your employees.

KEVIN: Can I just ask there has been a lot of focus on mental health, we've talked about in the past "r u ok" days, mates in construction talk about starting the suicide conversations and all that sort of stuff but a lot of the things you've just said are enormously compatible with all of those things about encouraging people to start the conversation about health and safety. I mean do you see that that's what you are saying is part of that movement or is it something different?

NATASHA: No absolutely Kevin it's definitely part of the same thing. We are trying foster a culture in workplaces where employees feel comfortable about putting their hand up and saying "I'm not okay to be dealing with heavy machinery today" or "to be making these decisions" for whatever the reason is but if they feel comfortable putting their hand up we are addressing the bottom line of safety. Safety is the most important thing in the workplace.

SIOBHAN: Can I just sort of play the devil's advocate there a little bit I completely agree that that's the way we'd like it to be but for the most part you know the reality is there's pressure you know we are in transition – I know you are going to hate this because its disrupted the economy issues but the truth is that you've got business constantly restructuring itself in order to get the cheapest possible output by outsourcing and you've got peer to peer economies and all the rest of it everything that we've just discussed is ideal but I don't know that it sits terribly well with the way the economy is restructuring itself and the pressure that organisations are under. Do you see any incompatibility between the two?

NATASHA: No – I do Siobhan but I guess what we need to realise is organisations are serious about safety and the culture of the organisation it's a journey it's not something that they can tick the box and say yep we've done that for this year. This is something that they need to continually address and yes I know that money is I guess is tight for a lot of businesses but it doesn't mean that you need to be getting in full on drug testing companies to be doing all these measures. Encouraging managers just to have the discussion with their team members they have to have team meetings monthly, or fortnightly or whatever their structure is raise it and put it on the agenda and just talk about mental health, talk about those things its simple, cost effective and it doesn't take a lot of time.

KEVIN: One of the things.

SIOBHAN: And I guess that's the issue isn't it - it is actually cost effective.

KEVIN: One of the things that I've seen called on in contracts and business agreements is that there's a demand and an expectation that has increased transparency in dealings and in discussions and all that type of stuff and I think what Tash is talking about is the transparency in the relationships at work, a readiness to be able to discuss about it so but if the companies are having a hard time economically there is actually a culture in place that the workers can know about this but blend that in to how they conduct themselves and those other things. I think it's a two way street it certainly on this issue we need to be able to be compatible upwards and downwards in our dialogue and have uncomfortable discussions.

NATASHA: Absolutely.

SIOBHAN: What do you think of that – to what extent so you've kind of seen in the last couple of years increases in dismissal over the grounds of safety. So somebody has breached a policy in relation to drug and alcohol consumption at work inappropriate levels or whatever it is to what extent do organisations have to line up the designer have transparency in these areas with the policies around disciplinary action?

NATASHA: That's an interesting point Siobhan we've seen a number of Fair Work Australia examples whereby they have overturned a dismissal so an organisation dismiss an employee for that very reason. They had a policy which said "don't do drugs" but Fair Work has said that was not enough. Fair Work have provided the employee compensation and upturned and said it was an unfair dismissal because the organisation first of all didn't communicate the policy so the employees didn't know that the policy existed or they simply signed it at induction 15 years ago, but also they aren't educating, they are not going and taking those extra steps to really help their employees understand and so we know a couple of examples whereby organisations had a policy and drug tested but because they didn't communicate their policy and didn't educate their staff one specific employee was awarded $300,000.00 and then reinstated their job.

KEVIN: I think that's one of ... we've talked about that before Siobhan in that you can't rely on policies because policies are simply policies – it is how they are implemented, communicated, understood, refreshed and reviewed and yet lawyers quite often – that's the first port of call. Is that changing in terms of the legal advice that's being given from the fraternity at the moment Siobhan?

SIOBHAN: I think that there are good lawyers and not so good lawyers. The truth is that if you've got a written policy which is never implemented then the courts will recognise the fact that that policy in fact didn't exist or if you have got a policy which is a matter of customs and practise if 50% what's written and 50% what is kind of just done out there then it is going to be what's happening as a matter of customer practise that applies so I think in a sense we're saying the same thing but the critical thing I think for employers to realise is that what happens on the ground has to match up what's on paper so you need to have consistency between the two and then this whole issue of transparency and the need for what you do when she's come to the fore that should be important as well.

KEVIN: One of the things that have – we were talking about party drugs before but we've also got the issue of well I was going to say "official medication" but legitimate medication for health issues and those sorts of conditions. We can overuse and abuse across the counter medications and prescription medications. I just wondered Tash how prevalent is that – is it something we just hear about in the celebrities in Los Angeles or is it something that we've got here in Australia and in work places?

SIOBHAN: It's an interesting point Kevin that you make with a lot of people focused on illegal drugs – ice, cocaine, heroin, those topical drugs.

KEVIN: Well they're hard to get too so

SIOBHAN: Depending on where you live!

KEVIN: Well that's right but you have got to make the effort and you know that what you're taking is illegal but prescription medication, they'll give it to you at the local chemist so it's got to be safer.

NATASHA: Yes correct only if you are using it as directed and for the reason that it has been prescribed. What a lot of people don't realise is that more people are dying from misusing prescription medication than they are – than more people are dying on the road toll. More people are dying from prescription misuse and overuse than they are from illegal drugs. In 2015 in Victoria alone more people died from Valium than they did of heroin so we're finding that people are misusing and abusing or even overusing prescription medication thinking because it is legal it's safe and it is not. We need to be getting that message out.

But also understanding that what is misuse? If you are a big burly bloke you still need to take what's prescribed on the packet. Don't think because you are bigger you can take three tablets or four tablets in one go instead of two. If a medication was prescribed for your partner for a condition and then you got that same condition that doesn't mean that you can finish off their script. But also misusing drugs as simple as codeine that you can buy so easily to help you get to sleep at night time or even to relieve back pain or something like that you need to go back to your doctor and look at alternatives.

SIOBHAN: Can I just ask you a question and Natasha you mentioned that fatality rates are higher related to – did you say to Valium than ...

NATASHA: Correct diazepam, yes.

SIOBHAN: So in terms of creating risks at work in terms of operating machinery and that sort of issue or even just behaviours – you kind of think that what's happening on the road has to be replicated just in the workplace wouldn't it?

NATASHA: You would think so but we've got a fantastic campaign with TAC in Victoria that really addresses prescription medication. Workplaces seem to forget about it and we need to remember that a lot of our workers are probably taking some form of medication in some way. We need to be getting them to be realising that that can also impair their judgment and their ability to make good decisions.

KEVIN: One of the things that I've seen is when I've been in workplaces and somebody impaired has turned up for work. Quite often it has been detected at sign on or whatever and the supervisor will say "look Fred you don't look too good" or "how about you take today off and you let us know how you are going". Just wondering is there a question for both of you – is that an appropriate level of response in terms of both safety and management of people or should we go further?

SIOBHAN: Perhaps if you go first Natasha and talk about what you recommend in those circumstances.

NATASHA: Thanks Siobhan I guess it's up to ... as I said before it is not just employers' responsibility but it is also the employee. The employee needs to be encouraged to tell their manager – "look I'm on some medication and these are the symptoms that I'm likely to experience". They don't have to disclose what their condition is or what medication they are on – just their limitations. But employers and managers need to create an environment where employees feel comfortable doing that and if possible could they be reassigned for that period that they are on medication. If it is longer term use then maybe their job needs to be looked at, but if it is short term use – employers should be encouraging them and supporting them by coming forward and saying "yes we'll put you on another job while you are using this drug".

KEVIN: Siobhan?

SIOBHAN: Yes look it is interesting that your answer lines up directly with the law because if you go back to it a worker also has responsibilities and the worker needs to take reasonable care for themselves and for their colleagues. So to the extent that you know that you have limitations or indeed that because you are on some level of medication you could be creating a risk in a workplace you do have a duty to do something which reduces that risk.

The issue though as Natasha is pointing out is that people have to feel "safe" in what they report because unfortunately I think that we've probably fess up to the fact that not all employees are going to be ideal around these situations. Particularly sometimes small businesses they are on small margins and they're not necessarily going to deal with this information in the way we might hope that they would and that kind of leads to I guess an earlier comment of yours Natasha. You talked about the fact that I think it was you saying it was some small businesses they like – have a very personal approach for example in relation to dealing with the drug and alcohol when you deal with them whereas sometimes larger corporations are tick a box. Did I understand you correctly when you said that?

NATASHA: Yes correct.

SIOBHAN: Which really surprised me because to be honest with you my experience is generally speaking that deeper pockets and bigger reputations in the market will – not necessarily out of the goodness of their heart – in fact want to deal with these things in a deeper more long lasting way and then often small business is far more reluctant to invest so I'm just wondering if this issue around drugs and alcohol this pocket of safety that small business looks at differently.

NATASHA: Well I guess that I guess there are large organisations which we have engaged with that have invested but I just wanted to show that it is not always the case with the deeper pockets. With the bigger the company the more politics – the harder it is for things to get through the system as well so ... but there are – it's not all organisations the larger ones that are doing the right thing.

SIOBHAN: That's very interesting.

KEVIN: We might have to wrap it up we've been going for over half an hour. Tash I'll let you have the last word here before I go back to Siobhan. Anything else that you want to share with the audience about alcohol and drugs?

NATASHA: Yes absolutely. Just on the last point with prescription medication. There are some medications out there that will return a positive drug test if they were to be drug tested for ice and methamphetamines and so in those circumstances it is in the employee's best interest to tell their employer prior to being detected and if they are on medication ask their doctor to provide a letter to say this person will return a positive test to these things for the next X number of weeks.

KEVIN: So what you're saying is the worker can have a medication that's been prescribed to them but a drug test may misread that chemical component as an illegal drug.

NATASHA: Correct. Yes correct.

KEVIN: Okay yes that makes the importance of the doctor's note and crucial to that or else you could end up with all sorts of issues and complications and reputational issues for the worker.

SIOBHAN: Just one thing to raise there and we won't have time to go into it but that sort of issue has come up with some of my clients who have actually said to their workforces that it is in their best interest to give that information in advance and the workforces have responded very angrily in these circumstances because people might be on anti-psychotic drugs and things of that nature and there are real concerns for people who have a mental illness which is a whole other issue whether or not we think that people should be more transparent about that issue that's quite complex. Do you come across that Natasha in your business?

NATASHA: Yes it is hard when you come to the privacy matter of what do you tell and what don't you tell and I think it comes down to the culture of the organisation and the trust between the manager and the employee. Trust that nobody else will know. But we've also got to remember that an employee doesn't need to disclose the reason why they are taking the drug, they just need to be focusing on how their drug may impact safety so privacy is a very big issue which is where a lot of employees I think fault up because they don't trust their managers so they won't be honest.

KEVIN: Siobhan have you got anything you want to just wrap up with?

SIOBHAN: No, but I think that we might have a subject for next time around the whole privacy issue and how to fix that Kevin but no thank you very much and Natasha I really annoyed that and it is a completely different perspective from the legal sector thank you.

NATASHA: Thanks Siobhan I appreciated the time and thanks Kevin.

KEVIN: That's alright so I'll wrap up now I've got nothing more to add to that other than wanting to go home and have a red wine and a box set of DVDs, but you've been listening this week or this podcast has been Natasha Jager

NATASHA: Correct

KEVIN: The website for the alcohol and drug foundation is so you can certainly contact Natasha through the website if you've got any issues or any questions you want to raise. I know that Tash is happy to take those sorts of enquiries but also if there is anything that you want to raise with Siobhan or myself you can always contact us through our LinkedIn links and also Siobhan through Corrs Chambers Westgarth's website I think you just type in her name and you'll get straight to her – contact details for Siobhan and you can get to me through the Safety at Work blog. We are going to continue with these podcasts into the New Year. We don't know when but we'll certainly be putting some information up on the websites about when and where we are going to start those up again. I think that's right Siobhan I know we've talked a little bit about it.

SIOBHAN: I think and I guess we'll sign off – Merry Christmas everyone and don't drink too much and if you do contact Natasha.

NATASHA: Great message.

KEVIN: Thanks very much.

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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