Drug and Alcohol Programmes making Forestry Work Sites Safer


In 2002, the Health and Safety in Employment (HSE) Amendment Act added impetus to urgency by clearly showing that '…a situation where a person's behaviour may be an actual or potential cause or source of harm to the person or another person; … resulting from … drugs, alcohol…' is a hazard that must be managed by employers. While that seemed reasonably clear, not everyone agreed that the 'hazard controls' should include drug testing.

In that same year, six NZ unions applied to the Employment Court for a permanent injunction and declarations against Air New Zealand Limited (Business NZ – 2nd defendant) and sought to '…restrain the first defendant from implementing aspects of its recently announced policy on alcohol and other drugs (see http://norml.org.nz/downloads/AirNZ_NZSupremeCourt_19850003.pdf)

While not challenging drug testing 'per se', the unions did wish to contest:

  • Air New Zealand's plan to implement a policy to test all staff for drugs and alcohol
  • the introduction of a policy that amounted to a unilateral alteration of employment conditions, and
  • the rightfulness of taking samples especially at random. This, and other early challenges, highlighted several challenges faced by employers and what might lay ahead for those that didn't act in accord with the law.

Meanwhile, the forest industry embarked on various testing programs that, for the most part included pre-employment testing and testing following an accident or incident. Most in the industry were less inclined to embark upon random testing.

The Air New Zealand case provided a 'landmark' judgment, but it did leave many questions unanswered! And, it would take some time, and other more 'industry appropriate' cases e.g. Toll NZ (2007): AC21/07: File No. ARC34/07 before the NZ forestry industry position on random drug testing could be fully galvanized. In August 2008, the NZFOA released the much awaited guidance: The 'Plantation Forestry Code of Practice – Eliminating Drugs & Alcohol from the Workplace' (CoP D&A).

Reasons to Act

The NZ forest industry (including its contractors) has a strong motivation to manage drug and alcohol impairment in its workplaces –

"It is not rocket science to appreciate that hazardous forestry work and drugs and alcohol don't mix! The link between workplace harm and drug impairment is well know to all in the industry", points out Nic Steens, Quality and Health & Safety Manager for PF Olsen Ltd.

"However, we needed to be sure of our (legal) position and any system we put in place. It was very helpful for the Department of Labour to describe the new CoP D&A as the 'benchmark for compliance' for drug and alcohol testing in forestry. Together with the guide it made it easier to communicate the value of a robust drug and alcohol management programme to our employees and contractors; it was abundantly clear that implementing a programme would both lead to less harm and ensure compliance with the HSE Act."

However, there was a lot of work to do, particularly around improving the general understanding of the testing process (including stand downs and rehabilitation for those testing positive), the legal and privacy issues, and employment relationships so that contractors could deal with their own employees and meet the terms of the CoP D&A.

To achieve all of that, PF Olsen embarked on a twelve month consultation and survey of its workforce. From Kaitaia to Southland, employees and contractors were invited to participate and to comment on what a random testing programme should look like. As a result, more than 300 individual survey results thereby helped to shape the programme and a successful format which has seen the company and its contractors complete two years of random testing.

The graph below shows PF Olsen (Company consolidated) results from 2010 and 2011. During 2010, 16.2% of all those tested were confirmed positive. This compares with 10.6% during 2011.

The results have been fantastic! Not only have we seen a material decrease in drug use but the attitudes are really firming up in favour of a workplace free from impairment. This is particularly true among contract employees who have no problem expressing how they feel about those found with drugs in their systems. The culture is starting to change!

Why so successful?

While forestry workplaces are comparatively un-unionized, the crews have close working relationships that rely on good communication. Generally speaking, the guys at the coal face 'say it how it is' and put issues on the table. This has been helpful in understanding what type of systems will best suit and delivering a package that suits the majority. Contractors have liked the fact that they have had the opportunity to have their say and they have a testing programme that is fair by including everyone in a safety sensitive position. That means even Peter Clark, the CEO of PF Olsen, is subject to selection, and contractor principals are tested alongside their employees.

Another factor is the maturity shown by our contractor workforce. Drug testing would simply not have worked without their full and uncompromising support.

"When a crew has a few guys that produce positive results, they are immediately stood down from work!", says Mike Spiers, PF Olsen's Harvesting and Distribution Manager in Rotorua.

"These employees must not come back to work until such time they can re-take a test and produce a clean bill of health (a negative test). If a crew looses a few men, this can have a big impact on the crew structure, its safety and its overall productivity. You would think contractors might be tempted to 'short change' the system; after all (and because of privacy laws) there is no one checking every single detail in respect of compliance. However, that's not what they have done – they have supported this programme 110% and the degree of maturity they have shown is very rewarding for me and other managers."

The future

A programme such as this will likely go through highs and lows. After all, we are dealing with much more than a workplace safety matter – drug and alcohol misuse is a complex societal issue!

Notwithstanding, we are very happy with the progress we have made to date and the collaborative approach taken to ensure contractor buy-in and undertaking it with complete legal integrity. While this programme is costly ($70,000 p/a) preventing just one serious harm accident or fatality will make it worthwhile and that's why PF Olsen will continue to champion this very important industry initiative.