The enthusiasm for drug and alcohol testing of workers is misplaced, argues Dr Yossi Berger, the National OHS Co-ordinator for the Australian Workers Union.

He gives some chilling examples of other threats to workers’ health and safety that he would like to see receive far more attention.

He writes:

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“Plenty of research shows that drugs are used recreationally in the community.  In the order of 30 percent of vehicle-related road fatalities are associated with the presence of some drug.

But what about at work?  Is drug usage at the same levels and how is that related to workplace risk and occupational health and safety incidents?  And is that really part of an effort to understand and deal with the notion of impairment for the task at hand?

As an example: some shift rosters so disturb internal hormonal balance that adrenaline alone can be excreted at levels that are many times more than under normal circumstances.  Hundreds of thousands of workers work night work and they will have such hormonal imbalances, and this will affect normal capacity to do certain tasks.  The level of that affect and the number of workers involved will be many many times worse (as an overall quantum) than the affects of drugs at work.  So are we really dealing with an interest in impairment?!

Over the last 20 years I’ve inspected in the order of 2000 workplaces.  I’ve personally talked with/to some 10,000 workers.  I’ve observed more than 20,000 workers doing their job.

In that period of time, in the order of 200,000 workers may have been killed by work in Australia, if you start to count fatality from occupational disease more realistically.

I see life-threatening hazards in 8 out 10 workplaces I inspect.  I’ve seen workers working in Melbourne in 900C heat near furnaces with the tips of their ears permanently burnt and bleeding; I’ve seen workers working in the industrial waste industry dizzy from exposure to chemical fumes; I’ve seen workers in SA working in such dusts that they have permanent coughs and their mangers manage the problem with packets of cough lollies; I’ve seen workers in WA using bolt-removing raddle guns for so many years that their hands are visually mutated.  Some have had numerous operations on their hands;  I see workers working in three states with constant nose bleeds from various chemicals, SO2 being an example;  I see workers using large and heavy commercial angle grinders for so long at a time for days on end  that they shake  with exhaustion…

So how come that in the midst of all that there is this great zeal and intensity with drug and alcohol testing?  Why this particular attention?

When did you last hear of the great employer campaign to test for G&C?  What’s G&C??   Machine Guards and conveyor belts.

When did you last hear of the great employer campaign to randomly test for B&B?  Beepers and Breaks on all mobile plant.

When did you last hear of the great and enthusiastic employer campaign to randomly test for F, M&A? Fumes, mists and aerosols.   Not paper risk assessments but actual effective improvement campaigns.

When have you heard of random OHS-skills tests of managers and their supervisors, and the offered and required specialised Employer Assistance Packages for the OHS ‘delinquents’ here who aren’t at the appropriate OHS standard for work?

When have you heard an employer say, “You can test the same sample for what the workplace is putting into the workers’ blood?  Or what the roster is doing to endogenous (internal) chemicals, hormones like adrenaline, noradrenaline, dopamine, cortisol, with significant effects on behaviour, performance and fatigue.

When have you heard employers say that they will welcome random tests for OHS standards at their workplace, including OHS competence of managers?

What about all those managers who delinquently breach OHS or moral principles, or who knowingly and deliberately impose great hardship on the families of workers?  How do we shape their behaviour?  Do they get warnings?  Do we randomly “test” them for OHS?  Or only for ‘cause’ and ‘suspicion’?

Thousands of workers die in Australia each year of occupational disease.   This means that slowly and insidiously over a period of 10, 20, 30 years harmful substances at work do their poisonous work, tiny bit at a time demolishing your health.

How come there are no intense campaigns by employers to detect this growing and foreseeable harm in their workplaces?  We could use neuropsychological tests to detect the earliest of signs and symptoms of such harm (e.g. blood lead 30 mg/dL down to 10) and do something about it.  We could call it the random Stop Workers Illness Campaign.  It may also have immediate benefit by reducing absenteeism and increasing morale.

Who knows, it may make workers more satisfied with their work-life and make them feel generally safer, and that may have positive implications for those less-than-angelic workers (and managers) who do at times come to work pissed or stoned.”