Assistant Secretary, Bill Mansfield speaks on physical and mental impairment of people at work and their ability to carry out work safely.

1. Introduction

There is a range of factors which can lead to the physical and/or mental impairment of people at work, and interfere with their ability to carry out their work safely. Unions believe that impairment essentially caused by work factors other than alcohol and drug use is a growing health and safety issue in Australia.


Under State and Territory Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) legislation, all employers have a duty of care to provide a healthy and safe workplace and safe systems of work. This means providing a working environment free from occupational hazards which can lead to impairment.


There has been a growing focus by employers on possible impairment at work arising from the use of alcohol and other drugs, even though alcohol and drugs have not been known to play a significant role in industrial accidents.


We believe this is a misplaced focus by employers, which is often at the expense of proper attention by them to other, more common causes of impairment at work, and/or in the absence of any comprehensive policies or strategies to deal with the known hazards in their workplaces.


1.5 What is needed instead is a better recognition and understanding of the most common causes of causes of impairment at work and improved measures to eliminate or reduce them wherever possible.

2. Alcohol and Drugs and Work

The ACTU recognises that the effects of alcohol and / or other drugs at work can be of concern. This concern arises both from the aspect of the health, safety and well-being of the affected worker, and the safety of other workers and/or members of the public who may be put at risk by a person whose performance may have been impaired.


However, this is only an OHS problem when alcohol and/or other drugs cause impairment to the extent that the person cannot safely carry out regular duties. Studies indicate that this is involves only a small percentage or workers.


Employers should also be aware that the use of alcohol and / or drugs may be a response to other work related issues over which the individual employee may have little control, including shift work; long hours of work; hazardous work; boring, monotonous and repetitive work; poor work environment; unrealistic deadlines; job insecurity; lack of participation and/or control; inadequate training and/or supervision; and stress.


Unions emphasise that the prevention and control of alcohol and drugs issues in the workplace must be seen in the context of the broad responsibility of the employer to provide a safe and healthy workplace and safe systems of work.


Alcohol and/or other drug programs in the workplace must be part of a broadly based occupational health and safety program which is jointly developed by employers, employees and their unions, and is designed to identify, assess and control all workplace hazards.

What the Research Says

One aspect of alcohol and drug abuse is whether and how testing should be undertaken. There was a range of valuable information and observations on drug testing in a publication released by the American Civil Liberties Union in 1999. The publication sought to bring the findings of the National Academy of Sciences to the attention of the business community. The publication was titled Drug Testing – A Bad Investment.


The report pointed out that a trend toward drug testing in the USA began around 1986 when the then President, Ronald Reagan, required Federal agencies to institute urine testing to try to achieve drug free workplaces. Since then many companies have introduced drug testing programs.


It also pointed out that :



  • drug testing is expensive – tens of millions of dollars is spent by government agencies alone




  • only a small percentage of companies using drug testing had performed a cost-benefit analysis




  • statements regarding the tendency for “drug users” to have more absences from work are not based on any proper study




  • testing of workers involved in accidents did not establish any significant connection with drug use




  • marijuana users were found to be as hard-working as non-users and earn higher average wages than non-users




  • drug testing may not reveal recent drug use




  • in one year of the Federal government’s program in the USA it cost $77,000 to find each drug user




  • an analysis of 63 high tech firms which have drug testing programs showed that the introduction of drug testing had lowered productivity rather than improving it. There is a suggested link between employers who trust their employees rather than test them.



Overall the evidence in the ACLU study should cause managers to consider how best to address any matters concerning alcohol or drug use affecting their employees.


Alcohol and other drug testing in the workplace


The ACTU does not condone the use of alcohol or drugs in the workplace.


However, the ACTU sees no need for the introduction of drug testing programs in the workplace, except in limited situations where clear public health issues may be involved.


If the appropriate health and safety systems are in place, which involve real consultation and participation of workers, there is we believe normally no need for workplace drug testing. In regard to ensuring that satisfactory standards of OHS are achieved in workplaces employers need to :



  • consult with their employees and elected representatives on working conditions and health and safety at work




  • provide appropriate and timely information, training, induction and supervision




  • assess working conditions to ensure hazards and risks to health and safety are eliminated or controlled




  • provide adequate welfare facilities for all employees




  • maintain information and records about working conditions, the health of employees, and OHS incidents or accidents at work,


A workplace alcohol and/or other drug program should be:


  • part of a comprehensive health and safety prevention program
  • related to safety at work
  • concerned with preventing impairment
  • co-ordinated jointly by employers, workers and their representatives
  • applicable to all parties in the workplace
  • consultative, educative and rehabilitative – not punitive
  • maintain confidentiality at all levels



In our view medical testing for drug use is not an appropriate feature of any prevention program for a number of other reasons, including:



  • current testing methods measure use or exposure, not impairment




  • inaccuracy and errors with interpretation of test results, both positives and negatives




  • effects of prescribed medication/s, and / or over-the-counter drugs




  • infringement of individuals’ rights, including the right to privacy and the right to refuse invasive procedures on whatever grounds




  • costliness compared to benefits gained – testing is expensive, and studies indicate that few employers carry out cost – benefit analysis of testing programs or evaluate their effectiveness in terms of reducing accidents



Most importantly, though many desired outcomes are given by employers to justify the introduction of drug testing programs, we don’t have evidence to substantiate that these ‘benefits’ have been demonstrated either in Australia or overseas. The available evidence suggests that drug testing can lead to lower morale and lower productivity.


The ACTU and unions believe that there are better ways to look for signs of impairment at work – whatever the cause/s. This can be achieved by monitoring the workplace for impairment hazards and observing workers for signs of impairment such as:



  • change in appearance
  • behaviour changes
  • lack of alertness
  • uncharacteristic clumsiness
  • changes in speech



Instead of invasive medical based testing programs, simple tests such as hand – eye coordination could be used.


It is also better practice to establish the cause of impairment by speaking to the worker/s, and investigating exposure to the most common impairment hazards.


Employees who may have alcohol and/or other drug problems should be provided with the opportunity to obtain assistance, and be entitled to the same rights and benefits as any other employee who is ill. Problems in this area should not affect job security, or other employment conditions and employees should be entitled to the same respect, sick leave and confidentiality as employees with any other health problem.


If the impairment is related to working conditions, employers should ensure that workers are allowed to recover and initiate steps to remove the impairment hazards


If the impairment is the result of the use alcohol or drugs, a non punitive procedure is needed to deal with the impairment situation

5. Other Impairment Factors

5.1 Many common work place conditions can and do lead to performance impairment which could result in industrial accidents and / or health problems, and we believe that this is where employers and governments should be focussing their attention and prevention activities.


5.2 Fatigue is tiredness that results from physical and/or mental exertion. The level of fatigue experienced will depend on the workload imposed by a job, the length of shift, previous hours and days worked, and the time of day or night.


5.3 Other effects associated with sleep debt include fatigue, dizziness, inability to concentrate, perceptual and mood changes – all of which can be an impairment risk. One recent study suggests that extended periods (more than 16 hours) without sleep have similar effects on reaction times to having a blood alcohol content higher than 0.05%.


5.4 Lack of sleep and fatigue in combination can adversely affect job performance, risking individual health and safety and the safety of others. The risk of sleep debt and fatigue is higher when the following working conditions apply:



  • shift work, particularly extended shifts and night work;




  • long hours of work and/or high levels of overtime;




  • jobs which require standing for lengthy periods, frequent manual handling or repetitive movements, and/or heavy work which is physically demanding particularly on long shifts or shifts with overtime;




  • monotonous work or work where a high level of attention and alertness is required can also increase fatigue; and




  • night work combined with extended hours is extremely hazardous in terms of sleep debt and fatigue, and may result in an increased risk of accidents at work.



Often, little or no consideration has been given by employers to health and safety hazards, including impairment, which is associated shift work, particularly night work, ‘on call’, and long or extended hours.


Many industrial chemicals, particularly solvents are known to have effects similar to fatigue or alcohol, including dizziness, inability to concentrate, perceptual and mood changes – all of which can be an impairment risk.


Working in hot conditions can result in a number of adverse health effects – ranging from discomfort to serious illness, which are generally grouped together as heat stress. Workers in a variety of occupations may be exposed to heat stress.


It is important to remember that people generally do not acclimatise to changeable seasonal heat, particularly heat waves. Therefore exposure to seasonal heat is a significant impairment hazard.


While these are well known impairment hazards, and plain common sense, unions and the ACTU are inundated every summer with calls from workers whose employers fail to take the basic steps required to prevent heat impairment, such as provision of fluids and frequent rest breaks.


Not only is occupational noise a hazard, in terms of hearing loss – noise is a significant impairment hazard. Obviously, excessive noise in the work environment prevents everyone from hearing what is happening around them, which could include instructions and / or warnings. Exposure to noise is also a significant cause of stress.


Despite all this being known for decades, noise remains serious, high cost work-related problem for Australian workplaces, workers and the community in general. Many employers still have a long way to go in eliminating or reducing the noise hazard/s in their workplaces.


When people are exposed to chronic, prolonged stress at work, they may experience any of a range of physical and psychological symptoms.


Chronic stress can cause or worsen a range of ill-health problems, which can severely affect quality of life, including asthma; peptic ulcers; digestive disorders and irritable bowel syndrome; psoriasis; sexual problems; depression; and alcohol and drug use.


5.13 Many studies have found links between stressful work and injuries. Where stress levels are high, injuries are also high. There are two inter-related reasons:



  • working conditions that cause stress can also cause injury
  • when people are overworked, under pressure, unsupported or even bullied at work, they are more vulnerable to injuries



5.14 An International Labour Organisation (ILO) study found that ‘of all the factors related to the causes of accidents, only one emerged as a common denominator: a high level of stress at the time the accident occurred’.


5.15 I have mentioned in detail some of the key work related factors, which are common and significant causes of impairment at work.


5.16 Two other factors which also deserve mention are:


i) a generally poor work environment – still more common that many would like to admit – characterised by overcrowding; lack of amenities; unkempt / dirty work environment; and no access to refreshments during the work period;


ii) ill health – we constantly hear of employers pressuring their staff to present at work when they are suffering from colds / flu, or other health problems. Not only is this unacceptable in terms of the effect on the health of the individual, who requires time off to rest and recuperate, but it is a hazard to other workers who may be exposed to infections, as well as being an impairment hazard.


5.17 The risk of impairment grows when the several of the factors I have mentioned are present in the workplace and the risks are also cumulative.

6. Conclusion

In conclusion the ACTU advocates employers adopting a consultative and positive approach to the issues involved in work organisation, workloads, stress, OHS generally and alcohol and drug use. It should involve trust, consultation, employee and union involvement and regard any impairment problem essentially as a health issue not as a basis for punitive action.


As In Search of Excellence management guru, Tom Peters, observed of the companies he had studied, the best run: Treat people as adults. Treat them as partners; treat them with dignity; treat them with respect … There was hardly a more pervasive theme in the excellent companies than respect for the individual.


ACTU Assistant Secretary, Bill Mansfield