Study reveals concerning drug & alcohol rates in construction

28th August 2012

An educational intervention program will be developed to help reduce and manage alcohol and drug use in the construction industry, after a Sustainable Built Environment National Research Centre (SBEnrc) survey led by QUT found concerning levels of recreational use.

In a national survey of 494 workers, The Safety Impacts of Alcohol and Other Drugs in Construction study found 58 per cent consumed alcohol at "hazardous" levels, and a further 15 per cent were at "significant risk of harm", based on the World Health Organisation's Alcohol Use Disorders Identification Test.

The study also found 32 per cent of construction site workers surveyed had used ecstasy or meth/amphetamine-type substances in the past year, and 16% had used cannabis in the same time period.

The reported drug use is higher than the most recent figures for the overall population which show that 10.3 per cent of Australians aged 14 years and over had used cannabis in the past 12 months, 3 per cent of the population had used ecstasy, and 2.1 per cent had used amphetamines (Source: The Australian Government report Drugs in Australia 2010: tobacco, alcohol and other drugs).

Project leader and QUT researcher Professor Herbert Biggs will present the findings in Edinburgh, Scotland, next week at the Association of Researchers in Construction Management annual international conference (September 3 to 5).

His research colleague Amy Williamson will also discuss the study at the first Occupational Safety in Transit Conference on the Gold Coast on September 20, which has been organised by QUT's Centre for Accident Research and Road Safety - Queensland (CARRS-Q).

The study is a key project at the SBEnrc, which has its national headquarters at QUT in Brisbane, and is funded by government and industry members.

Professor Biggs said the majority of surveyed workers were male, with a mean age of 35. Most classified themselves as a tradesperson or labourer, and others included supervisors/management, administration or engineering employees and plant operators. The two-year project also involved structured interviews with workers and managers.

Professor Biggs, who is also a researcher with CARRS-Q, said the next step would be to develop an industry policy and associated change management program, including case studies demonstrating industry best practice.

He said there was a wealth of anecdotal evidence from the building sector about the use of drugs and alcohol and the associated safety risks on construction sites.

"But prior to this research, no known study has scientifically evaluated the relationship between the use of drugs and alcohol and safety impacts in construction," he said.

"There has been only limited adoption of nationally coordinated strategies, supported by employers and employees, to render it socially unacceptable to arrive at a construction workplace with impaired judgement from drugs and alcohol.

"Operating machinery and mobile equipment, the proximity to road traffic, using electrical equipment and operating at heights conspire to accentuate the potential adverse impact of drugs and alcohol in theses workplaces.

"Our interviews identified a general lack of understanding surrounding the physical effects of alcohol and other drug use and how these effects might impair performance, despite the general attitude that the use of alcohol and other drugs is detrimental to the workplace productivity and safety."

Professor Biggs said it was important to note that the researchers were not advocating mandatory drug or alcohol testing as a solution.

"What we need is educational preventative programs, rather than simply dealing with alcohol and other drug use after the fact through testing and dealing with positive results," he said.

"We have also specifically identified a need to educate younger employees about how to cope with the general lifestyle that can accompany a highly paid, project-to-project, transient type job.

"The use of a mentoring type initiative has been highlighted and there is worker support for the effective communication of alcohol and other drug education to all employees at training sessions, and the use of clear, visual, hard copy brochures or posters, and videos.

"We are also developing a web-based brief intervention program which can be augmented as more resources become available.

"Another key is management support and a strong supervisor relationship and commitment to better managing alcohol and other drugs."

The SBEnrc's chief executive officer, Dr Keith Hampson, said the centre's projects had a national, collaborative focus - which was exactly the approach needed to address drugs and alcohol in the construction industry.

"We need to involve employers, employees, clients, unions, contractors and sub-contractors to engender a cultural change in the construction workforce, similar to the on-going initiative to securing cultural change to drink-driving in our society, where peer intervention and support are encouraged," he said.

The alcohol and drugs in construction project is supported by a national industry steering committee consisting of representatives from the Australian Constructors Association, Australian Procurement and Construction Council, Australian Workers Union, Austroads, Civil Contractors Federation, Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union, Engineers Australia, Master Builders Australia, and the Office of the Federal Safety Commissioner.

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Media contacts:
- Professor Herbert Biggs, 07 3138 4749 or
- Mechelle McMahon, QUT media officer, 07 3138 9449 (Mon-Tues), or (Mon-Fri)

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