Drugs in the Workplace

Prime Minister Bill English created a media storm a couple of week back when he said that "One of the hurdles these days is just passing a drug test. Under workplace safety you can't have people on your premises under the influence of drugs and a lot of our younger people can't pass that test." Opposition parties were outraged by the comments with the NZ Drug Foundation also stating that this is not backed up by solid data.

Labour employment spokesman Grant Robertson said English's comments were a "diversionary tactic" based on anecdotes rather than hard fact. "In his pathetic defence of his Government's failing immigration policy, the Prime Minister has managed to condemn a generation of Kiwi workers as druggies," Robertson said.

However Employers and Manufacturers Association (EMA) Chief Executive Kim Campbell backed up English, saying Kiwis on drugs were a growing problem for some employers. "Unfortunately it's very difficult to get any actual statistics, but we go and talk to our members, and we know that we're very busy doing drug testing policies." Campbell said drug use was a particularly significant issue in industries like farming, forestry and construction, which relied on workers being unimpaired. "You don't really want an office full of people who are whacked out, but they're probably not going to kill anyone - but if you've got someone driving a forklift or [using] a boning knife or a front-end loader, do you want to be the guy standing next to him?, do you want to be in a forest chopping down a tree with some guy who's completely whacked?"

So are drugs in the workplace really the issue that Mr English claims them to be?

During the last six years we have had to deal with many situations where employees have consumed illegal drugs and have returned to work believing that these have had no effects on them. With the refocusing of Workplace health and safety requirements the issues of employee’s being under the influence of drugs at work is now an even bigger issue for employers.

While some employees drug taking is being identified through random testing of staff increasingly more and more situations are arising where a drug test have been required after the employee has been involved in a workplace accident or incident.

Is it just the young people?

Based on our experience many of the young people entering the workforce are not the problem with by far the largest group to be represented in failed drug tests and subsequent disciplinary processes to be males in the 35 – 50 year age bracket. For many of these people casual drug use has been a part of their lifestyle for many years with them being completely obvious to the effects on their personality and behaviours that the impact of drugs is having. Recently we dealt with an employee who confirmed that he had been a drug user for many years but that he believed it didn’t impact on his ability to do his job.

Such employees are a hazard to themselves, to other workers and the operations of the business. From a health and safety perspective employers need to have a strong awareness of the signs that may indicate an employee is under the influence of drugs or that they may be participating in casual drug use.

From both a WorksafeNZ and an insurance perspective there are significant liabilities for employers where they are aware that an employee has a ‘propensity to casual drug use’ but yet they continue to allow the employee to come to work without putting in place some form of intervention (i.e. offering rehabilitation or standing the employee down until they can provide a clean sample). WorksafeNZ can prosecute an employer where an accident occurs if they discover that you were aware of the employee’s causal drug use and where you cannot demonstrate that you took all applicable actions to prevent the employee from putting themselves in the position where an accident occurred. Similarly we have encountered situations where insurance company have declined cover over employees using mobile plant and equipment where the employer is aware of the employee’s ‘propensity to casual drug use’ but yet continues to allow them to operate the equipment. 

To address these situations we recommend that all employers have in place an applicable “Drug and other Substances” policy in place and that they ensure that all employees are inducted into such processes on a regular and on-going basis.

If you need assistance in addressing any issues associated with drug use within the workplace please feel free to given us a call.



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