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Drug and Alcohol Testing Improves Forestry Safety

Managing workplace hazards in the forest is an ongoing challenge, but one we can not afford to ignore – the mechanisms of injury and the potential for serious harm are great. PF Olsen and its contractors are committed to eliminating hazards and providing a safe and healthy work environment.

In 2002, an amendment to the Health and Safety in Employment Act (HSE Act) introduced a new definition for 'hazard', adding such things as fatigue, stress, and the behaviours resulting from drug and alcohol impairment. While most people had come to terms with 'general' hazard management, an appreciation of these new factors, particularly in a workplace context, was more challenging.

In December 2002, PF Olsen responded to the challenge by adopting the principles of the 'Alcohol and Drug Free Workplace – Forest Industry Toolkit' – a New Zealand Forest Owners Association (NZFOA) publication. Despite this useful framework, there was still uncertainty about the various types of drug testing and how they could fairly and legally be applied.

And the legal challenges did come. Most notably were the, the Air New Zealand (AC22/04 ARC 42/03) and the Toll Limited (AC21/07 ARC34/07) cases. These landmark cases established (1) that the employer must monitor (drug test), particularly in safety-sensitive work, and (2) that the 'work of Toll employees on wharves around NZ is safety sensitive' i.e. the work of loading logs and the use of log loaders on New Zealand wharves.

Subsequently, the NZFOA published an update of the toolkit now known as the 'The Plantation Forestry, Code of Practice (COP) – Eliminating Drugs and Alcohol from the Workplace' . The Department of Labour has described this Code as 'the benchmark for compliance'. The COP was released to industry in late 2008.

Of course, the COP didn't entirely remove the complexity and the sensitive issues relating to privacy and human rights. Additionally, employment law and the Employer/Employee relationship need to be honoured and preserved, to be legal. These are all factors very important in forestry's 'non-unionised' environment where all parties need to conduct themselves with care and maturity.

The introduction of the COP, paved the way for random drug and alcohol testing and it is this area, in particular, that requires careful consultation and management.

PF Olsen spent 2009 in consultation with its staff and contractors. Some 350 staff and contractors attended regional consultations where everyone was invited to have their say. Additionally, the Company provided a comprehensive survey questionnaire, the results of which are posted on the PF Olsen website. This process moulded the future course for drug and alcohol testing – an approach we continue to maintain to this date and possibly the reason for the excellent commitment and support received from the work-force.

Starting in 2010, all branches of PF Olsen commenced random testing. The New Zealand Drug Detection Agency (NZDDA) is the independent tester and manager of results. Privacy of individuals is assured but non-specific/aggregated data is made available to appropriate participants of the programme (such as PF Olsen and contractor principals).

Results from data collected during 2010 year to date shows a staggering 15% of workers are positive for the presence of one or more drugs while at work. Whilst most of the drug taking is believed to be out of work hours, a "positive presence" result indicates a likely level of impairment and harm. Workers are screened in their workplace, and are removed from the site if the screen shows drugs are present. The sample is then confirmed by a laboratory and workers must produce a 'clean test' before coming back to work.

While some of those testing positive try to avoid the issue by temporarily 'cleaning up' and then moving onto a new crew, some are using it as an opportunity to change habits and behaviours. We are very pleased with the latter outcome; we get to retain these (otherwise) excellent contributors to our industry – and, by managing the hazard (the individual), make things safer and more productive for everybody involved.

At $85 per test (minimum) and our aim to test at least 50% of our 'safety sensitive' workforce annually (some 700 tests nationwide), PF Olsen is making a small investment in relation to the possible harm prevented and the overall benefit.

Already, we are seeing a big reduction in serious harm incidents during 2010. Whereas previously we have had 7 or 8 serious harm injuries per million person-hours of work, that number has reduced to 4 or 5. So, drug testing, in conjunction with our other safety initiatives, is having measurably positive results.

There are other considerations. For example, consider the increased value recovery for the forest owner in relation to better performance of the complex task of grading logs from whole stems. This is not a job that should be carried out by someone impaired by drugs or alcohol! Just a 1% improvement in log value recovery would add millions of dollars to forest owners' bottom line across NZ every year.