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Highs & lows: Alcohol & other drugs in the mining sector


[hr]Alcohol and other drugs affect many Australian workplaces, more than most people would expect. But it’s alcohol and other drug use in the mining sector that has been gaining considerable attention of late, writes Tara Oldfield from the Australian Drug Foundation.[hr]

Comparing the realities of the mining and fly-in, fly-out (FIFO) lifestyle with the factors associated with risky drug and alcohol consumption, you realise they share many similarities. So it’s no surprise that FIFO camps and mining communities have been infiltrated by alcohol, illegal drug use and the latest trend, new and emerging synthetic drugs.

So what are the risk factors that make the mining sector so ripe for alcohol and other drug use? And most importantly, what can employers do to prevent it?

Alcohol and other drugs in the Australian workplace
Alcohol and other drug use is not unique to the mining industry.

In a forthcoming Policy Talk paper written for the Australian Drug Foundation, Ken Pidd and Ann Roche identify the full extent of the issue of alcohol and other drugs on Australian workplaces.

They recognise that the annual cost of alcohol related absenteeism alone is estimated to be up to $1.2 billion, while alcohol and other drug use (not including tobacco) account for approximately $5.2 billion in lost productivity and workplace injuries and deaths.

Phillip Collins, Head of Workplace Services at the Australian Drug Foundation says that these figures may seem quite staggering.

“Best practice organisations recognise that these costs directly impact bottom-line and that the drinking activities of an employee affect work performance,” he says.

While the dollar cost to businesses across Australia might be quite a shock to some, it’s nothing compared to the human cost, with alcohol use contributing to 5 per cent of all Australian workplace deaths and 25 per cent of workplace accidents.

Alcohol and other drugs in the mining industry
While it is reported that only 12 per cent of the mining industry workforce engage in illicit drug use, the industry records a higher than average rate of short term risky drinking with 21.9 per cent drinking high levels of alcohol at least monthly.

Australian Medical Association (WA) President Dr Richard Choong says that mining workers suffer significant health issues as a result of the FIFO and mining lifestyle.

“In this industry, obesity is on the increase, smoking and alcohol are higher than state and national averages and mental health issues are also on the rise. For instance, there is increased incidence of depression. However, all of these issues work not in isolation, rather in tandem with one another.”

Why is the risk of alcohol and other drug use so much greater in the resources industry?

Risk factors
Phillip Collins says that many of the lifestyle factors of workers in the mining industry send up immediate red flags.

“Workers in this industry are mostly male, they are isolated, working irregular, long hours and often don’t have easy access to local health care and interventions they need to work through their problems.”

He says that when you compare this to the known risk factors associated with groups in the community more likely to use alcohol and other drugs you see many similarities.

Across all occupations, males are more likely than females to drink at risky levels. Male workers are also more likely to use illicit drugs.

Pidd & Roche’s paper also identifies work stress as one of the biggest influences on alcohol and other drug use, as well as long and irregular hours and boredom.

Sam* is a former FIFO camp manager who ran numerous camps throughout the Pilbara region accommodating populations of 350 to 1800 men. Sam* agrees that boredom and isolation play a big part in the severe drug and alcohol use in the industry – with many workers partying even harder when they are on an off-week.

“I personally believe that boredom in remote areas, as well as the ongoing stress of being away from family and civilisation is conducive to drinking and drug use on site.

“It is also a very male dominated industry, where males prefer to have a few drinks to solve problems rather than ask for assistance. I have seen emotional drinking from divorces, and other family issues, where taking time off has not been allowed.

When workers are on their R&R break, there is a general rule to party harder, for longer, and spend earnings on whatever they can get their hands on. There is perhaps a thought to work away for a few weeks and then catch up on all the weekends that were missed while working, over one weekend.”

Sam* identifies high disposable incomes as a contributing factor, with most workers earning more than double the average Australian wage.

“There is a very high discretionary income associated with the mining sector and I have seen people spend tens of thousands of dollars on drugs and impulse buys (associated with drug use), just because the money was there. In the event that they needed a few extra days to catch up on sleep and sober up they call in sick for another week. This is not one or two isolated cases, but prevalent.

One particular friend of mine would have been in the same job for over three years, and earned close to $500,000 over that time. He was living from pay to pay, boarding in a house for minimum rent, had a cheap car, never travelled, but spent his whole pay on cocaine and hallucinatory drugs. Whilst on drugs, he would purchase items such as guitars, drum kits, ping pong tables, remote control cars. He realises now that he was wasting his money due to boredom and the fact that, like many other young people joining the mining industry for the first time, this was a copious amount of money, with no direction or counselling on how to properly spend and invest the money, it was easily wasted.”

The most damage is caused once employees fly home from the mines. Dr Choong says that during off-weeks is when you see the alcohol and other drug use really take hold.

“When FIFO workers return from the mines, drugs and alcohol can become a serious issue. With considerably higher incomes, a ‘time-off’ state of mind and/or the pressures of readjusting to the real world, there is a greater risk of harmful behavior.

It’s getting into this ‘time-off’ state of mind that is a key factor says Dr Choong. Once workers are back in the real world, they have to adjust physically, mentally and emotionally and sometimes they use drugs and alcohol to help them do that.

Dr Carla Schlesinger, a CompleteScope psychologist who has worked with mining companies around drugs and alcohol agrees. She says that Sam’s* experience is consistent with what she has seen in the industry.

“The fatigue, loss of sleep, bad diets, poor mental health due to isolation and frequent depression has seen mining workers seek out drugs as a method for managing their situation.

“They may take stimulant type substances (amphetamines, cocaine and analogues of these drugs which can be purchased over the internet) to keep themselves awake, to feel energetic and confident, and able to physically take on the tasks of the day. Alternatively, workers also take drugs that depress the central nervous system (such as alcohol, benzodiazepines, opiates and opiate analogues) they will often drink to relax, unwind, relieve boredom, dull mental issues such as depression, anxiety and stress.”

[pullQuote]“…Alcohol use contributes to 5% of all Australian workplace deaths and 25% of workplace accidents.”[/pullQuote]

New and emerging drugs
New and emerging drug use is on the increase amongst young and middle-aged adults with people who use these drugs usually around their mid-20s. Around 77 per cent of users are male and 78 per cent employed.

These new and emerging drugs include herbal highs, herbal ecstasy, bath salts, and synthetic cannabis. Due to their unclear legal status in the past, they have often been referred to as ‘legal highs’ or synthetic drugs. They go by brand names including Kronic, Spice, Northern Lights, Zeus, Puff, Tai High, Magic Dragon, Aroma and K2 and they come in the form of powders, pills and synthetic cannabis. They are widely available through retail shops and online.

“Because they are often easy to get a hold of, use of these drugs is increasing. For a long time these drugs were technically ‘legal’ – but that doesn’t mean they are safe. In fact, there is mounting evidence that synthetic cannabis could be more harmful than natural cannabis as it may increase the possibility of psychotic symptoms and seizures,” says Phillip.

Manufacturers of these drugs use new chemicals to replace those that are banned and are constantly changing the chemical structure of the drugs to try to stay ahead of the law.

Are new and emerging drugs an issue for the mining sector?

Phillip Collins seems to think so. He says that these new and emerging drugs are becoming increasingly popular in the mining sector and unfortunately, with drug testing used throughout the industry, evidence is showing that these drugs are being used to evade positive test results.

“Initially we saw a rise in the use of methamphetamines by miners after urine drug tests were introduced because they metabolise faster than cannabis. Now the trend is towards synthetics.”

Sam* tells a similar story about the rise of legal highs in the FIFO camps and the lengths that workers sometimes take to trick the drug testing system.

When the synthetic cannabis became more readily available early last year, it was across the entire camp I was working at. Even those who would not have normally used it were taking it up, just because they could.

“When it comes to the drug tests, I know of several people who use masking agents, other people’s urine and in some instances, if they ‘sleep in’, they just pass through the drug and alcohol screening points. Generally, if one over indulges, they call in sick the next day to recover.”

Approaching the problem
While the statistics look grim now, Phillip says there is some good news for employers when it comes to drug and alcohol use.

“At the Australian Drug Foundation, we started working with businesses because we identified the great potential the workplace has to positively affect a person’s health and wellbeing.”

According to Phillip, a multi-pronged approach is required to tackle drug and alcohol use.

“We can’t just rely on drug testing, there needs to be a multitude of approaches all working together to ensure the health and wellbeing of employees.”

The first approach could be a formal workplace policy. Phillip recommends that the policy should provide an outline on the organisation’s position and provide a set of guidelines and strategies around dealing with all aspects of alcohol and drug related issues within the workplace.

He also says education and training are key elements to any successful workplace strategy.

“Employers need to make sure they are able to provide regular and ongoing education and training as well as access to counselling and treatment,” he says.

“There are lots of forms of education and training, from online learning to more substantial awareness sessions.

“Web-based training can effectively inform employees of their company’s position on alcohol and other drugs in the workplace, and educate them on the harms they can cause. The Australian Drug Foundation has produced a great tool called AWARE which can be tailored for individual companies.

“Information sessions can also be tailored to specific business needs to support organisational change and enhance the knowledge base of staff regarding workplace and community alcohol and drug issues and impacts.

Ultimately, the key is to ensure that everyone in the business knows the rules and what is expected of them when it comes to alcohol and other drug use. And then if the line is crossed, the consequences should be clear to all involved.

During Sam’s* time at FIFO camps, there was a belief amongst workers that there would be no serious consequences to their actions in relation to breaking rules around drug and alcohol use.

“Quite a few of the incidents I had reported to site supervisors were not dealt with seriously enough…The workers would apologise profusely, claiming that they were drunk due to missing family or the stresses of site life, but ultimately they knew their job was safe, or the union would step in. I have also seen site supervisors encouraging drinking games and other particularly dangerous activities that would not be tolerated on any other workplace.

“I think companies need to have a non-flexible zero tolerance policy. If it is known that bad behaviour whilst drunk constitutes severe reprimand and disciplinary procedures, the culture would die down.”

Phillip agrees that while a tough stance and strict rules are required to ensure workplace safety, other policies should also be put in place to ensure that employees are supported and can get help when they need it.

[pullQuote]“Initially we saw a rise in the use of methamphetamines by miners after urine drug tests were introduced because they metabolise faster than cannabis. Now the trend is towards synthetics.”[/pullQuote]

“Other strategies include health promotion and interventions,” he says.

“Strategies to combat boredom and misuse of finances could also be addressed by employers. For many new workers in the industry it is the first time they have lived in such isolation and with a very high income at their disposal. Improved entertainment and recreation opportunities and training around finances could make a huge difference.”

Sam* says that these things would have made a big impact on the workers at the FIFO camps.

I think more education is needed at the beginning of the careers of FIFO workers to assist them in making long term choices and show them that guidance and counselling is available, as it is very hard work to be away from loved ones for any amount of time. They should also have access to financial advice, to show that drugs and alcohol are not long term investment choices.”

What’s important for employers to also remember is that people use drugs and alcohol for many reasons. Psychologist Dr Schlesinger says that policies also need to address the root of the emotional problems that may be causing alcohol and drug use to begin with.

Often workers who are bored, stressed, fatigued, lonely, experiencing relationship issues at home will tend to use drugs in an attempt to manage a situation. It is important to address these issues in a productive manner. For example, as part of one intervention, computers were placed in workers’ individual dongas/sleeping quarters to allow them to interact with their family in a meaningful and timely way. This one intervention has not only increased their feelings of well-being, but provided an incentive to stay sober as workers wanted to get quality time with the people they cared about.”

Outside of the scope of employers, the AMA (WA) would like to see much more research done on the health of FIFO workers.

“At present all we have is anecdotal evidence about the incidence and effects of drugs and alcohol in the FIFO workforce. As part of the Parliamentary Inquiry last year, the AMA (WA) called on the Government for $5 million a year to further research into FIFO – an area which is no longer just an acronym, but a way of life.     

In the meantime it is clear that companies need to take more responsibility for and contribute to the overall health and wellbeing of their employees with improved drug and alcohol education and awareness programs, fitness education, as well as counseling services offered to both miners and their families.

By implementing a comprehensive drug and alcohol policy, Phillip Collins says employers are not only ensuring the health and wellbeing of their workers, they are also helping their own bottom line.

“A happy and healthy employee does the best work – it’s as simple as that.”

Sam* not his/her real name. 


Things to consider for your workplace:

  • A formal workplace policy for all levels of the organisation
  • Online training
  • Information sessions including monthly “toolbox” meetings with operational staff
  • Counselling services
  • Drug testing
  • Additional training opportunities (managing finances, mental health, etc.)
  • Recreation opportunities (organised sport, etc)
  • Clear and real consequences for breaking the rules
  • Regular evaluation of the strategies to ensure they are working


Phillip Collins is Head of Workplace Services at the Australian Drug Foundation.
Celebrating more than 50 years of service to the community, the Australian Drug Foundation is Australia’s leading body committed to preventing alcohol and other drug problems in communities around the nation. Our aim is to create an Australian culture that supports people to live healthy, safe and satisfying lives, unaffected by drug and alcohol problems.

The Foundation works with workplaces to assess alcohol and other drug risks they may be exposed to, and provide sustainable solutions that reduce the risks of harm. Visit our website at www.adf.org.au for more information.

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