According to the Health and Safety Executive, the construction industry is in the top two sectors for fatalities in the UK (just behind agriculture, forestry and fishing). The industry also ranks second overall for non-fatal injuries, with an injury rate of 2,620 per 100,000 workers.
In such a dangerous, accident-heavy environment, it’s vital that workers can do their jobs to the best of their ability - which includes leaving drugs and alcohol well alone. A survey carried out by the Considerate Construction Scheme revealed 35% of workers in the construction sector have witnessed colleagues under the influence while on the job, and over half - 59% - have concerns about drugs and alcohol usage within the industry.
However, the same survey revealed that 65% of participants had never actually been tested for drugs or alcohol. While testing within the industry is on the rise (according to the TUC) it’s by no means mandatory. Here, we investigate why drug and alcohol testing in construction is so vital, what current regulation looks like, and how things could change in the future.
The case for drug testing in construction
As the Health and Safety Executive figures show, construction is a dangerous business. With the risk of accidents so high, it’s vital that employees are of sound health and mind.
Drug and alcohol use can impair judgement and reaction times, making it more likely that injuries will happen. But that’s not all. There’s a proven link between drug abuse and mental health: 37% of alcohol abusers and 53% of drug abusers have at least one serious mental health condition.
Mental health charity Mates in Mind estimates that around 350,000 workers in the construction industry is experiencing mental health issues at any given time. And with poor mental health increasing the risk of suicide, the onus is on the industry to identify those with a drug or alcohol problem and give them the support they need before the worst happens.
So what are the current rules on drug and alcohol testing in this highly dangerous industry?
What do regulations look like now?
Drug and alcohol testing is not currently legally required in construction, whereas other high-risk industries are governed by laws regarding drug and alcohol use.
In the UK rail industry, for example, Section 27 of the 1992 Transport and Works Act dictates that those in certain roles who are found to be impaired by drugs or alcohol are guilty of an offence. In the global oil industry, meanwhile, five different reasons for testing safety-sensitive workers are laid out in formal industry guidelines.
That’s not to say that the construction industry as a whole is shying away from the issue - far from it. More and more of the sector’s larger companies are setting their own guidelines: Barratt Homes, for example, introduced random drug tests in late 2018, while Interserve plc “maintains an extensive platform of information, resources, policy and support” to tackle drug and alcohol usage, with testing applying to all employees and contractors.
But for an industry with such potential for danger or disruption caused by any human error or accident, this isn’t quite enough. What could potential industry-wide regulation look like?
The future of drug and alcohol testing in construction
It’s clear that industry-wide regulation of drug and alcohol testing would have a beneficial impact on the construction sector - and adoption of new regulation in other industries across the globe has had proven results.
In a previous article we described the testing situation in Indonesia, where the aviation industry hit the headlines for all the wrong reasons in years gone by. Accidents were attributed to pilots under the influence, and drug tests came back positive for cocaine and heroin.
Now, though, things have changed. Since early 2018, the country has handed over the responsibility for substance testing to national authorities rather than individual airlines, and now tests for both current and historic drug misuse.
It’s an approach from which the UK construction industry could learn a lot - and there are various means of testing and testing situations which could be applied. Pre-employment hair testing could establish any pre-existing substance misuse within the last 12 months, while random, for-cause and post-incident tests could ensure that safety and rehabilitation are high on employers’ agendas.
There’s currently no legal requirement for drug and alcohol testing in the UK construction industry - and there are currently no plans to put something concrete in place. For this reason, it’s down to employers to follow the lead of the likes of Barratt Homes and Interserve plc to introduce their own policies, ensuring that they put the health and safety of both their employees and the public first.