Making positive changes in the workplace by reducing drug and alcohol use

The idea that a person would take drugs then go to work in a safety-sensitive situation where impairment could lead to serious harm is very disturbing to most people. Indeed, in some industries such as air transport we would regard it as entirely inappropriate.

However, around New Zealand, in numerous work situations including the most safety sensitive this is exactly the situation; and forestry is not immune. Thankfully, the forestry industry has said goodbye to the ‘bad old days’ where, for example, our (PF Olsen) historical records show, one in every six workers tested for drugs (16%) produced a positive drugs test.

After six years of our random testing programme, those numbers are much improved. Currently one in every 17 workers (5.8%) produces a positive test when tested at a PF Olsen managed worksite, and we are forever working to reduce that number by understanding where our hotspots are and introducing targeted initiatives.  

One of those hotspots is silviculture, were the workforce is more seasonal in nature and attracts a greater number of new entrants. Here drug-testing results can be as high as 50%! While some dismiss silviculture saying it is ‘low risk and drug testing is not required’, PF Olsen considers it to be a vitally important area to have in our focus. Indeed, working with silviculture crews, that house the ‘future of the industry’ is a key focus of the Company’s ‘journey toward zero’.

To that end, PF Olsen Ltd has not only been testing silviculture workers, we have been working with them to design programmes that will ensure a maximum number of the workers stay ‘drug free’ while working on our sites. Understanding ‘where the workers are at’ in thinking and in knowledge provides a vital key to making the changes that are required. In this article we highlight some of that thinking, the challenges and changes the workers face.

The following are some excerpts from a conversation (interview) with a worker who has had some big life changes in the last year or so. We also discuss some of the interventions that led to the changes.

NB: the worker’s expressions are largely unedited.


I used to be in a crew where some of the guys took drugs, me too every now and then but only in the weekends, it wasn’t easy to have them (the drug takers) in the crew, it bothered me but financially we had to keep them.”

“I sometimes picked them up in the morning; I always had to wait and then all the way to work they argued over who owed what to who, it was just b__s__! All day it was in the back of my mind that the supervisor was going to turn up any moment and they would be caught, I was always worried about that. At knock off, they were coming down and in a bad mood, they argued about everything and stressed the whole crew. They took a lot of days off and did a bad job of things, every week we had to do reworks, they were lazy and couldn’t follow instructions. When we were thinning those guys were using chain saws, sometimes we have to walk in hard places over bumpy ground, it’s pretty easy to fall.”

“A while ago now I had to grow up. The boss and our supervisor found out and they put their foot down, we were now going to be tested more often, you had to be on board and clean, or not”.

The PF Olsen response (interventions):

This silviculture crew was randomly selected for drug and alcohol testing early in 2015. The results were quite alarming. Of those that submitted to the testing (a number refused and simply walked off the job), around 50% were positive for cannabis (THC).

PF Olsen was told by one of its major forest owner clients that while they are happy with the overall reduction in drug taking, they could not accept this result, or indeed any result other than ‘zero’. That client asked PF Olsen to think of ways to improve and to reach this target.

Whereas it would have been easy to terminate the crew, it was decided to give them a last chance. The principal has attended a Reasonable Cause Testing workshop, and the principal and crew attended follow up education for offenders and the crew they work in, both provided by PF Olsen. The crew now work under very close scrutiny and they will participate in a specially designed programme commencing in the new planting season.


“We are a clean crew, there is so much less stress, before it was a 10 (on the stress scale) now it’s about 3 and that’s stress about the job not those guys and their smoking and no more talking b__s__! Everything runs better and the quality of the work is better.”

“Myself? It’s helped in all aspects of my life I’m not so shy to talk now. I can have a conversation and even talk to the supervisor, before I would say as little as possible. I feel confident about trying new things, I’ve stepped up. It’s not been easy, I started drinking a bit and had to have some counselling. As a crew we do better work, we don’t have to do things twice, we can make a plan in the morning and we know what to do. Everyone is at work, we get more done and we make much better money, we’re a good team.”