By Rhys Evans, Director at ALCO-Safe
Construction is one of the most dangerous industries to work in, as the potential for occupational accidents is high. In addition, the industry also has a high rate of alcohol and drug abuse, not only in South Africa but also across the world. This hazardous combination not only puts workers and their colleagues in danger, it also creates unnecessary risk for construction companies, who may be held liable should accidents occur under the influence of alcohol or drugs. Mitigating this risk and ensuring the safety of all parties requires a multi-faceted approach that includes appropriate substance abuse policies, education, and the right equipment to deter alcohol and drug related incidents.
The very nature of the construction industry is what makes it hazardous to work in. Workers are often required to handle heavy machinery, drive large vehicles, operate dangerous equipment or perform tasks such as welding that are all risky even when undertaken by a completely sober individual. However, this situation is exacerbated by the addition of alcohol and drugs to the workplace. While local statistics on substance abuse in the construction industry are not readily available, international research shows that this is an on-going problem, and South Africa faces the same challenges, particularly around the consumption of alcohol.
Many reasons behind prevalent alcohol abuse
The reasons for the significant rate of alcohol abuse in particular in the construction industry in South Africa are numerous. Firstly, the local ‘culture of drinking’ is a problem across this and other industries, and often workers are not educated as to the dangers and implications of alcohol abuse and daily drinking. In addition, the construction industry often requires workers to travel far from their homes, which means living on site with other workers away from their families. Drinking often ensues after work as a result of boredom, as well as the aforementioned drinking culture in the country. Excessive drinking at night impairs concentration the following day, as the result of either alcohol remaining in the system, or of the effects of a hangover.
Drug problems not just about illegal drugs
Drug abuse is another challenge that, while not as prevalent as alcohol abuse, is still a problem in South Africa. Marijuana is one example of a fairly commonly used drug, and the consequences of marijuana usage on an active construction site can be incredibly dangerous. Marijuana interferes with perceptions and emotions, vision, hearing and coordination, none of which are desirable outcomes when operating heavy and dangerous machinery.
Aside from the problem of illegal drugs, the negative effects of prescription drugs can also be problematic. Legitimately prescribed scheduled medication can cause impaired concentration and drowsiness, and should not be used by people operating heavy machinery. Workers need to be aware of these effects and the consequences of using or abusing any substance that can alter perception and impair judgement and concentration.
The implications of drug and alcohol usage on site
Workers who drink alcohol or take drugs on the clock or even after hours can seriously endanger the safety of everyone on site, not to mention negatively impacting a business’ operational ability, productivity levels and reputation. Alcohol and drugs are a major contributing factor to many workplace accidents in the construction industry. These chemicals impair control of both physical and mental capabilities, leading to poor judgement and poor reaction times, amongst other problems.
Employees under the influence of alcohol or drugs are a safety hazard to themselves, to all other workers around them, and to business. If one worker is injured because another caused an accident as a result of alcohol or drug impairment, the construction company may be legally liable. If an accident results in a member of the public being injured, the ramifications could be even more severe. Construction companies could be liable for heavy fines, or even prosecution should accidents result in death.
The Occupational Health and Safety Act (OHSA) stipulates a zero tolerance policy for intoxication in the workplace, which means that any trace of alcohol or drugs in the system and workers are in contravention of health and safety standards. However, it is up to construction companies to enforce this. While heavily intoxicated people are easy to spot, even a small amount of alcohol or drugs in the system can be enough to impair judgement and concentration, and even the tiniest amount contravenes the OHSA.
A multi-faceted approach to a solution
Ensuring safety in the workplace requires a multi-faceted approach that includes education, appropriate substance abuse policies, and the right equipment to deter alcohol and drug related incidents. Education is critical in creating awareness of the consequences of drug and alcohol abuse in the work environment, to help prevent problems before they occur. Substance abuse policies back this up, providing a comprehensive guideline to control substance abuse and the consequences of workers who are in contravention of this. Guidelines are available to assist companies with developing these policies, however organisations need to be aware that in order to conduct alcohol and drug testing, employee consent is required first.
Working in tandem with education and substance abuse policies, technology can assist organisations to test employees with minimum disruption to productivity. Rapid breathalyser and drug testing equipment can be used for quick, accurate readings of employees suspected of being under the influence of alcohol or drugs, as well as for random testing should this be required.
The latest breathalyser technology is safer and faster than ever, providing a quick result with a tiny breath sample, without the need for a mouthpiece. Testers are therefore not required to change mouthpieces for every test, speeding the process, and the results are easy to read, detecting any alcohol on the breath and delivering pass or fail feedback that is not subject to misinterpretation. On-site disposable saliva drug tests can also be helpful, as they can be used quickly and easily at the construction site without the need for or expense of sending urine samples to a laboratory or clinic.
Such breathalysers and rapid drug testing equipment are readily available and are extremely useful in detecting and deterring substance abuse in the workplace. By using appropriate technology such as this, in conjunction with policies and education, construction companies can mitigate the risks of alcohol and drug usage on site.