Opinion piece by Francois Barton in Safeguard magazine

The following opinion piece by Forum Executive Director Francois Barton appeared in Safeguard Magazine:


Focus on the risk

Achieving healthier and safer workplaces is a wicked challenge, and wicked challenges demand more than simplistic solutions. What works is focusing on underlying issues, and almost always doing more than one thing.

Drug and alcohol induced impairment at work is part of that wicked challenge, and thus demands more than a single solution.

Workplace drug screening is a rudimentary tool to identify consumption, not impairment. There is no doubt merit in Jarrod Gilbert’s concerns about the potential disconnect between a positive result for cannabis and impairment. However, people are using an increasing range of drugs, including alcohol, where a positive result and impairment are deemed analogous.

His article is a constructive prompt for workplaces to reflect on how they apply their drug policies, and to stay abreast of emerging drug testing methodologies. But I would guard against the extreme counter conclusion, that employers should have no interest in robust drug and alcohol management.

I would argue that rather than singly debating the efficacy of drug screening, a more useful discussion for everyone in the workplace is how we can more effectively manage the risk of impairment.

That discussion gives us a fighting chance of getting beyond a moral-social-technical debate about the acceptability of drugs, and to focus more on shared responsibilities across workers and managers in reducing the causes and impacts of impairment.

There are a bunch of causes of impairment that affect a person’s physical and mental capacity and capability to work in a healthy and safe way. We need to understand these causes if we are to tackle them effectively. Mental causes of impairment include fatigue, stress, mental health, exposure to workplace substances, and of course, drugs and alcohol. There are also physical causes of impairment, such as reduced mobility due to obesity or reduced strength due to ageing.

Equally, when something goes wrong, not only is it irrelevant to those harmed if the person was impaired by drugs or a teething 2-year old, drug testing won’t resolve the issue for the future. Consequently, a more important and challenging question is: how we design our work so that people can fail safely? Regardless of why the last person in the chain may have been impaired.

Both the cause and impact sides of the impairment risk are important to prevent serious harm to our people.

So in tackling impairment, robust drug policies and procedures are part of the mix, but not the only part. They are relevant, but insufficient in isolation. We need to challenge ourselves to test the quality and balance of our prevention approaches. How well have we thought about multiple causes of impairment beyond drugs?

We also need to challenge ourselves to test the quality of our mitigation controls. What happens when someone who’s impaired makes a mistake? Is our risk control more than simply 100% of people being 100% focused 100% of the time? Is our workplace a safe place to fail?

Simplistic solutions to impairment might feel like progress, but comprehensive risk management will deliver more.

Francois Barton is executive director of the Business Leaders’ Health & Safety Forum.