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Drug and alcohol problems for workers in small-scale forestry

Kirk Hardy, New Zealand Tree Grower February 2015.

Small-scale forest owners often employ contractors to work on their properties. Whether planting or harvesting, it is essential that workers are not impaired by drugs or alcohol and especially when operating heavy machinery. How can a small-scale forest owner know what to do about this when they are employing contractors, especially given a recent court case where the ultimate liability for safety is clearly the responsibility of the land owner?

What you need to ask

If you have staff it is important to have the right practices in place to mitigate the risks of drug and alcohol use when they are working on your farm or in your forest. These practices include a sound current drug and alcohol policy, and staff educated about drug and alcohol problems in the work place. However, small- scale forestry is often an operation relying on contractors for much of the work.

When employing them it is important that you ask to see their health and safety policy which they are required to have under WorkSafe New Zealand regulations. That is, ensure the contractor has the necessary safety equipment for machinery and the correct apparel such as helmets, earmuffs, leggings and gloves. If they are not able to provide this documentation and physical evidence of apparel it should be a serious concern.

As part of the health and safety focus, forestry contractors are expected to ensure that they and their staff are participating in regular random drug and alcohol testing. The testing should be conducted by an accredited organisation rather than a non-compliant organisation, in which case the testing has no merit. It should be possible to ask to see the results of this testing for the contractor and other personnel who will be working on your property. Small-scale forest owners need to have the confidence to check about safety in general, and drug and alcohol testing in particular. They need to ask the questions above so they have everything in their reasonable power to ensure a safe forestry working environment on their property.

A serious health and safety problem

Onsite workplace drug testing numbers are increasing and non-negative test results are trending downward. Drug consumption has become important in safety-sensitive industries like forestry, but it is also important in other sectors including white collar workplaces. Going to work with impairment from taking drugs is a serious health and safety problem. All work, whether employees are operating heavy machinery or are managing a superannuation fund, require full cognitive ability. Employers have a responsibility to ensure their workplaces are safe and their employees are working unimpaired and without risk to others.

The continued significant rise each year in the number of on-site workplace drug and alcohol tests undertaken by The Drug Detection Agency is a signal that employers in all sectors are taking workplace safety very seriously. This, together with the downward trend in non-negative rates of the agency’s testing over the past five years, shows a changing workplace culture.

Saliva testing or urine testing?

Some forms of testing detect different components of tetrahydrocannabinol which is the active ingredient in cannabis. Saliva tests, for example, have a much shorter window of detection. It has been argued that saliva testing is the only relevant form of testing for the workplace as it indicates when the drug is active and does not pick up lingering amounts of tetrahydrocannabinol. This may be technically correct, but it implies that a risk of impairment only exists while the employee is feeling the effect of the drug.

Researchers have demonstrated that that risk of impairment continues long beyond the subjective high experienced by a cannabis user. Therefore, despite the absence of an effect which is felt, the risk of impairment continues long after the high has been experienced. The user remains unaware that their cognitive and physical abilities can remain degraded and do not pick up on their actual impairment.

For heavy users it is also possible that impairment could occur long after use. Heavy cannabis users store marijuana metabolites in their fatty tissues and some of these can remain active for some time. When the metabolites are released from the fatty tissue a risk of impairment can be produced despite no recent use of cannabis.

The bottom line is that just because a user does not feel affected, it does not mean that they are not. As with alcohol abuse, the user’s self-perception of their cannabis use is a completely unreliable indicator of fitness for work. As a result, urine testing is currently the safest and preferred option for workplace drug screening. People who use cannabis on a regular, or even on an occasional basis should be aware of these facts. It is very possible that even after the effects of the high are felt, for example at the weekend, that they may still be in a state which puts them, their workmates and the general public at risk for some time afterwards.

Test statistics

The number of on-site workplace drug tests conducted in this country increased 13 per cent over the last year. Significant test statistics from 2013 include that of the 81,140 tests conducted by our company of these 5.5 per cent tested non-negative, which is an indication that the presence of a drug is detected. This result is down from 6.4 per cent in 2012 and seven per cent in 2011. Non-negative tests are those tests which have undergone an initial urine screen test and the presence of a drug has been only indicated. The sample then goes to an accredited laboratory for confirmation testing.

Cannabis continues to be the most frequently detected substance, with just over 71 per cent of non- negative results indicating that drug is present. For synthetic cannabis, 3.3 per cent tested non-negative. The construction industry is the area in which our company carries out most of its on-site workplace drug tests. In 2013 out of around 12,000 tests the non-negative rate was 14 per cent. Cannabis and methamphetamine were the most detected drugs.

Effects and risk of cannabis use

It is disturbing to see a small rise in the detection of cannabis in the tests Cannabis is overwhelmingly the New Zealand drug of choice as it is relatively cheap, readily obtainable, and users tend to think that its effects are negligible when going to work the next day, although this is not the case.

Unlike more soluble drugs such as methamphetamines or 'P', cannabis is detectable for longer periods. This means that cannabis smoked on a Saturday night is likely to be detectable on the Monday morning. The effects of the drug are only felt for a matter of hours but can be detectable for 24 to 48 hours afterwards even for a single dose. In the case of regular and heavy users, this ingredient can even be detected in the lab weeks afterwards. The presence of tetrahydrocannabinol in a user’s system does not necessarily indicate that there is impairment, but it does indicate that there is a risk of impairment.

It is anticipated that the Health and Safety Reform Bill will place more accountability on employers to provide a safer workplace and there will be harsher penalties for failure to comply. Currently it is impossible to know for sure how this legislation will take shape. It is probably safe to assume that the new legislation will have provisions about taking, or not taking, steps to identify or rectify problems around risks of impairment from drugs and alcohol and these will be part of any investigation into workplace accidents.

Kirk Hardy is the Chief Executive Officer at The Drug Detection Agency.

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