Drugs and alcohol in mining: workers have their say

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By regular MiningFM contributor Brooke Martin

When you hear about drugs and alcohol in mining, what comes to mind? Excessive drinking? Marijuana? Party drugs? An issue blown out of proportion? The topic certainly seems to come up fairly often in the media, but what do the miners themselves think of it all - and does it have an impact in the workplace? We decided to ask...

Every mining company has its own process and discipline procedure for drug and alcohol (D&A) testing and management. In fact, mining is one of the most heavily tested industries for D&A in Australia. Some mines test all employees every morning as they pass through the gate, while others use random testing procedures. Some have a zero drugs and alcohol stance, while others are more lenient. The more I researched this topic, the more I realised that the management of drugs and alcohol in mining is highly controversial. There seem to be quite definite views on what's right and wrong.

Bill*, a mining manager, says there's only one way to go: "It is to have a mine site completely free of drugs and alcohol – zero tolerance is the only way to run a safe and efficient mine." Bill has worked in mining for more than 20 years. He's seen too many incidents at work in the pit (and also heard stories from the plant) where D&A have been the cause of minor incidents, major incidents resulting in ICU, and unfortunately death.  "I’ve mostly seen blokes turn up to work hungover from the night before, probably operating on no or very little sleep, get into a dump truck and cause havoc. One dozer operator even tested over the legal driving limit in a causal test following an incident last year. Young miners are paid way too much money these days and think it’s appropriate to piss it up against the wall and spend it on party drugs instead of doing something worthwhile on their days off."

Toby, a sparky in his late 20s, says "I know a lot of blokes on my shift who do party drugs on the weekend, but mostly marijuana, and they still come to work on Monday because they have no fear of getting caught." His company has a zero D&A stance, but they don’t do enough random or blanket testing and therefore "these idiots" rock up to work, week after week, and never get caught. “I honestly do feel like they’re putting my safety at risk every week when we’re working - they’re just not switched on, and we’re working with dangerous equipment.” When I asked Toby if he’s ever thought about approaching these workmates or his supervisor with his concerns, he said: “No, you can’t throw your workmates under the bus.”

Alicia, an office worker for a FIFO mining company, says she knows many people in their 20s, 30s, 40s and even 50s who use recreational drugs at the start of their break. They know it will be completely out of their system by their first day back on shift if they get drug tested.  "It’s a well known fact if you work in mining – that’s just how it is." she says.  "The company can't do anything about it, we're not at work, and we're all sober by the time we get back to work, so what’s the problem?" 

I raised Alicia's comments with one of my fellow expat miner buddies, and this was his response: "Well, what's worse – employees using alcohol and ecstasy off site to have a good time and return to work sober, ready to work for the next eight days, or an employee who is addicted to prescription medication such as Panadeine Forte and takes it every day while on site?”  

He’s right – what is worse? Is there a wrong or right answer? When I asked him what his company was doing about the employee with the Panadeine Forte addiction, he laughed and said: “Everybody knows she has a problem, we all tease her about it."

Pete, a mine site trainer, says he has a casual puff of marijuana on the weekends when he’s off work.  "To be honest with you, nobody even knows. It's just something I do with a mate to relax and it doesn’t affect my work at all," he says. When I asked if he's been drug tested recently, he said: “No, not once have I been drug tested in two and a half years – there's a couple of thousand miners on site so I just slip through.”

So where does the buck fall? Are employers doing enough to manage D&A in mining? 

HR manager Marie says mining companies only have so many resources and "we can’t spend every morning testing employees for drugs and alcohol". She says mining companies educate the more inexperienced miners upon joining the company. "Some of the onus has to be placed back onto the employee to want to attend work free of drugs and alcohol," she says.

Darren, a fixed plant mechanic, says he was randomly D&A tested a few years ago and was over the alcohol limit (not good on a 0.00 mine site!)  "I got a written warning, and it totally scared me out of ever risking going to site again if there was a slight chance that I still had alcohol in my system. It was actually an education for me – I didn’t know alcohol could stay in your system so long."

Lisa, who works in procurement, says stricter D&A testing and discipline is definitely called for in mining.  "I believe in it wholeheartedly. The days of old, rocking up with no sleep, a killer hangover and a few puffs of marijuana on the weekend are long gone.  I have been in mining for 15 years and the stories from the real old timers would make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up!" Lisa said.  She believes that things just had to change.

Chris, a mining engineer in the US, says it’s all well and good to beat down on miners who test positive for drugs and alcohol on site – but shouldn’t the focus be on helping employees with potential D&A problems? “Shouldn’t our first step be to refer this person to counselling? Especially those repeat offenders, before they blow over or test positive to drugs again and we simply kick them out the gate and wave goodbye?” he says. “We all have a duty of care as fellow workmates, supervisors and managers.”

Jason agrees: “I think mining companies should do more to educate employees on the health risks of drug and alcohol use outside of work hours and the affect it can have on their work and personal lives.” He believes D&A related incidents would be drastically reduced if this was the case.

But Greg, who works in site services, passionately disagrees: "What else do we need to do? Soon we’ll be holding these workers' hands, walking them to the toilet and wrapping them in bubble wrap! There is no excuse for drugs and alcohol when you know the rules and consequences.”

So it seems that some believe D&A is certainly a problem in mining and resources. Others, not so much. If the problem is as big as many believe, will it take more education to stop the issue? And does it really matter if miners dabble in D&A on their time off, to wind down after long roster on site? 

As I expected, there are many differing opinions! I suppose the key for all of us as individuals is to keep a watch out for loved ones and workmates who seem to be taking things to the extreme, and offering a timely reminder when it's needed on the personal impacts - and the threat to everyone on site when you mix drugs and alcohol with dangerous workplaces.

*Names have been changed to ensure anonymity.

What's your view on drugs and alcohol in mining? Let us know!

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