PLANT

Combating alcohol and drug use in the workplace


October 14, 2009
by Corinne Lynds, Senior Editor

The oil and gas industry has seen a 48% increase in employees seeking counselling for drinking problems.

Photo: Stock

Dealing with the effects of alcohol and drugs in the workplace is no small challenge for any employer, but in the industrial sector where employees work closely with heavy, dangerous and hazardous materials, substance abuse is potentially life threatening.

Nearly 40% of industrial fatalities and 47% of industrial injuries can be linked to alcohol consumption and alcoholism, according to Q3 Innovations, a manufacturer of alcohol screening technology that works with the US Department of Labor.

“There is no doubt that employers are concerned about major accidents happening,” says Ailsa Wiggins, counsel with Canadian law firm Gowlings Lafleur Henderson LLP. “Apart from big accidents and people injuring themselves, there are also environmental risks. The Exxon Valdez oil spill is a good example of that. [One of the possible causes was a master failed to provide a proper navigation watch, possibly due to alcohol impairment]. It was not only harmful to people and the environment, but it also cost the employer a ton of money.”

There are plenty of good reasons for employers to proactively search for ways to decrease the incidence of drug and alcohol abuse amongst its workforce, aside from the obvious potential for injuries, death and damaged equipment. Absenteeism, sick days and disability costs all impact productivity and ultimately the bottom line.

A recent report by the Shepell.fgi Research Group indicates that in the past three years the number of energy industry employees seeking counseling for drinking problems was up 481 per cent.

“The high rate of addictions is of particular concern to the oil and gas employees due to the safety sensitive nature of the workplace,” the report says.

Part of the problem is that the energy industry includes large numbers of transitory workers who live far away from home, says the study, which is based on information gleaned from 36 energy industry organizations between January 2006 and December 2008.

In August, oil sands giant Suncor Energy announced it was banning alcohol at all its Alberta worker camps. Alcohol has always been banned at its Firebag site, but starting on Sept. 1, the same rules were applied at its Borealis and Millennium lodges just north of Fort McMurray.

Researchers say the ban is intended to help maintain a healthy atmosphere in the camps and will likely help avoid security problems.