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Drugs and alcohol: What's happening on site?

Drugs illegal cocaine heroin pills cannabis ING 33594 180901 2

A third of construction operatives have seen someone under the influence on site. Lucy Alderson speaks to workers and experts to identify where enforcement is falling short and assess the scale of the problem.

More than a third of construction workers have witnessed a colleague under the influence of drugs or alcohol on site.

This was among the key findings of research conducted by the Considerate Constructors Scheme (CCS) in 2016, as part of a report containing a number of equally concerning figures.

Around 65 per cent of workers had never been tested for drugs and alcohol, while a quarter said they were tired at work because of the effects of drugs or alcohol.

Despite these worrying statistics, there is a significant lack of wider research available to support industry efforts to understand and – importantly – monitor the workforce’s relationship with drinking and drugs.

General research was conducted back in 2004 into the prevalence of illegal drugs in all workplaces by Cardiff University on behalf of the Health and Safety Executive. It found that one in 10 workers of all ages had used drugs within the past year, which rose to one in three among workers aged under 30.

Although construction was identified as a “higher-risk” industry in which the effects of drug use could carry “far more serious” consequences, there was no specific research relating to the sector in the report – which itself is now 14 years old.

Indeed, following a CN Freedom of Information request submitted in August last year, the HSE said it was unable to provide any information on the number of onsite accidents in which drugs and alcohol could have been a contributory factor.

Given this lack of benchmarking data, are contractors able to effectively monitor the issue and track attempts to tackle any problems?

Scale of the problem

CCS chief executive Edward Hardy says the only information it has been able to gather about the use of drugs and alcohol in the industry comes from its 2016 research.

He says the prevalence of both was identified as a concern by the CCS – particularly with regards to the number of workers who had witnessed colleagues under the influence.

“It is sensible to include at least a drugs and alcohol policy, and potentially a testing policy, to prove you have attempted to prevent a drugs/alcohol offence”

Steven Carey, Charles Russells Speechlys

Paul Jackson, who is head of impairment research at innovation centre The Future of Transport, suggests the lack of data illustrates that drugs and alcohol in construction is an “under-represented issue” and could be a “much greater problem than is recognised”.

The Future of Transport aims to support improvements to transport systems. Dr Jackson leads on researching the impact that fatigue, stress, alcohol, drugs and mental health difficulties can have on worker performance – including those in construction.

From his research and experience, he suggests construction workers could be using drugs and alcohol as a form of self-medication for site injuries and musculoskeletal issues, the latter of which are particularly prevalent in the sector.

Between 2014 and 2017, 3.5 per cent of the industry’s workforce suffered from a medical condition they believe was caused or made worse by their work, according to the HSE. Musculoskeletal disorders accounted for 65 per cent of these cases.

“We know that musculoskeletal disorders are much more prevalent in construction,” Dr Jackson says. “The nature of the work is more likely to cause an increased prevalence in back injuries, neck injuries, shoulder pains […] and chronic pain problems. While I’m not sure there is documentary evidence to support the idea that people are using [drugs and alcohol] as a form of self-medication […] anecdotally, I think this is very much the case.”

More on drugs and alcohol

Under the influence: Binyamin Ali investigates how drinking cultures are changing

How is it monitored?

Drugs and alcohol policies vary between different companies and sub-sectors within the industry.

For example, it is a criminal offence for workers to carry out safety-critical works on a railway under the influence of drugs and alcohol, under Section 27 of the Transport and Works Act 1992. It is also an offence for employers to fail to carry out all due diligence to prevent workers from carrying out works under the influence.

Charles Russells Speechlys partner Steven Carey says that, while there is no law that says construction companies working on rail projects must carry out drugs and alcohol tests on their employees, it is “prudent to do so” to avoid potential liability under this act.

A person found guilty of this offence could find themselves in prison for up to six months and/or handed a fine of up to £5,000, he explains. “It is sensible to include at the very least a drugs and alcohol policy, and potentially a drugs and alcohol testing policy, in order to prove that you have attempted to prevent a drugs/alcohol offence.”

Accordingly, major clients such as HS2 and Network Rail instigate regular drugs and alcohol testing.

“The vast majority of companies now have policies and procedures in place for dealing with [it], which they didn’t used to”

Edward Hardy, CCS

Both carry out tests when a worker is suspected of being under the influence, or after a health and safety incident has taken place. Both conduct random testing across their projects as well.

Throughout the wider industry, Mr Hardy suggests there has been a general increase in the monitoring of drugs and alcohol. “The vast majority of companies now have policies and procedures in place for dealing with [it], which they didn’t used to,” he says.

Of the 6,000 sites, companies and suppliers registered with the CCS, Mr Hardy says it is “rare” for the CCS to come across a company that does not have drugs and alcohol guidelines in place. He says larger construction companies typically have “very strict and thorough policies”, such as carrying out random drug tests on site.

But while the industry may have become more rigorous in its approach to regulation over recent years, CN research indicates a culture of drinking and drug-taking still lingers within the industry.

One director of health and safety at a major contractor, who wishes to remain anonymous, says 10 per cent of the drug tests the company conducts are failed. These failed tests typically come back with a positive result for cannabis, he says, pointing out that these tests are usually targeted to catch workers suspected of being under the influence.

Knowledge about the issues within the industry is limited, the health and safety director suggests. “Most reputable contractors are doing something about drugs and alcohol,” he says. “But all we as contractors know about drugs and alcohol comes only from our testing companies.”

Dozens of construction workers have also given CN their accounts of drug-taking and excessive regular alcohol consumption being normalised in the industry.

One worker, who has been in the industry for more than 50 years, said the use of cocaine by younger workers in particular has increased over the past three to four years in rural parts of Wales, where he works.

“I would say test failures are more drug-related than alcohol-related now. A lot of middle management are engaging with drugs as well”

CN research respondent

He argues that drug use is “10 times a bigger problem” than alcohol in the industry. “There’s always been a problem with drink,” he says. “But most of the lads I know in construction in some way or other are over-indulging in drugs. It used to be cannabis, but it’s cocaine mostly now.”

He recently witnessed three people being told to leave site because they had failed their test. “I would say test failures are more drug-related than alcohol-related now,” he says. “A lot of middle management are engaging with drugs as well.”

Another worker says he has witnessed workers under the influence on every site he’s worked on, while another recalls seeing colleagues operating heavy machinery after smoking cannabis on site.

The head of a construction department at a higher education body tells CN there is an increasing drug-taking culture among the younger generation of construction workers. 

He adds that there have been three occasions when he has had to ask students to leave workshops because they were under the influence of alcohol. “What was most disturbing is that they didn’t think drinking over their lunchbreak and then working in that environment was an issue,” he says.

How could enforcement improve?

Only robust annual data can provide a fuller understanding of drugs and alcohol use in construction, but for now such statistics do not exist.

Another way it could be tracked is by analysing the number of accidents or dangerous incidents in which alcohol or drugs were a contributing factor.

CN’s Freedom of Information request submitted in August last year led to the following response for the HSE: “The Health and Safety Executive’s systems do not code incidents in a way that allows records to be retrieved in relation to whether drugs and alcohol has been a contributing factor in an accident that has taken place on a construction site.”

“If there is a fatality on site or something really serious has happened, the question that ought to be asked is whether anyone involved was under the influence of a substance”

Health and safety director 

However, the anonymous health and safety director claims the HSE does not even ask contractors for this information in the first place. The issue is “not on the HSE’s radar”, he suggests, adding that it “doesn’t really have a handle” on the situation.

“But if there is a fatality on site or something really serious has happened, the question that ought to be asked is whether anyone involved was under the influence of a substance,” he adds.

In response to the claims, an HSE spokesperson said: “In co-operation with other government departments, HSE has published guidance for employers in relation to their general duties under the Health and Safety at Work Act and other legislation.

“When we investigate reported injuries and dangerous occurrences, we seek to establish the underlying causes and whether there has been a breach of health and safety legislation.

“Where an employer’s failure to manage drug and/or alcohol use in the workplace may be a contributory factor, this would be appropriately considered as part of the overall investigation.”

Dr Jackson points to another shortcoming in regulations and enforcement: the reliability of workplace testing kits. “The extent to which the way companies are monitoring drugs and alcohol through random testing is effective is debatable,” he says.

Dr Jackson adds that one challenge “hasn’t even been considered yet”: the rise of new psychoactive substances in the market, sometimes known as legal highs. “Will those tests detect a synthetic new psychoactive substance? Possibly not.”

Companies’ influence

As well as using drugs and alcohol to self-medicate physical ailments, Dr Jackson suggests workers may be doing the same for mental health problems.

“Are people using drugs and alcohol to help them cope with mental health issues, or is the use of drugs and alcohol causing mental health issues?”

Paul Jackson, The Future of Transport

CN research in July this year revealed the scale of the challenge in construction, with 57 per cent of the workforce reporting that they had experienced mental health issues, while one in four said they had contemplated suicide.

“It’s a chicken and egg situation,” Dr Jackson says. “Are people using drugs and alcohol to help them cope with mental health issues, or is the use of drugs and alcohol causing mental health issues? It’s a really complex issue.”

He is currently developing a wellbeing programme with the aim of getting companies to recognise the impact they as a business can have on the mental health of employees. 

Many companies have put education programmes in place to help employees adopt healthier lifestyles and reduce drug use and drinking. However, these programmes rarely look at the effects of shift patterns on employees, Dr Jackson adds, or the demands that a company’s operational practices place on individuals, which may trigger mental health issues.

“The key message here is that it’s all very well to deal with the consequences, but if you’re not addressing the underlying cause, you’re just putting a sticking plaster on a major wound.”

Based on Dr Jackson’s observations, coupled with workers’ responses to CN’s research, drugs and alcohol could be a bigger problem than some companies currently think.

But with such a significant lack of data on the scale of drug and alcohol abuse, it is difficult to accurately assess the situation – or to judge how effectively the industry is tackling problems where they exist. 

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Readers' comments (2)

  • Having spoken to many companies on this issue, there is another aspect and that is managing the individual that has been caught coming on site under the influence of drugs and alcohol. If they are an employee of a large company they are often guided to a programme of recovery through some sort of company scheme. However, as a large proportion of our workforce is agency and self employed, the usual response is to be walked off site and barred from that main contractors work. However, the worker can easily sign up to another agency and contractor. The individual in this case is not helped through a recovery programme and all we are doing is moving the problem from site to site. If the circumstances of the workers addiction is not sourced and supported, then this could result in a downward spiral , not helped by them losing their job. We need to add humanity to the process. The industry is so short of skilled workers we should be looking after the ones we have in a more holistic way.

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  • I agree with the above comment William Hill
    I was interviewed over the telephone by the reporter for CN and declined to be named but noted my comments have been included
    The plain fact it that a lot of management are involved in the misuse of drugs namely cocaine them selves
    Only this weekend I was talking to a plant operator working on a large local contract who I have known and respect for many years.
    He told me that 3 of the main managers are regularly ringing operatives who they knew who indulged in drugs when the drug testing was next scheduled and actually ringing them up telling them to go home “sick” in case their names came “out of the hat” and he would let them know when it is safe to come back
    I find it strange that these senior managers can identify these operatives as drug users which to me can only signify one thing
    Strangely though it appears management are not subject to testing themselves
    I was recently on holiday in Western Australia and found that similar situations exist there
    The situation in this country is dire to say the least cocaine has taken over from the old fashioned Saturday night on the beer with your mates and a bad head on a Sunday but fit for Monday
    Some employers are in between a rock and a hard place with such a shortage of skilled construction staff I am convinced they are turning a blind eye to the obvious problem

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