Under the influence

Whether it’s the city centres, urban fringes, regional areas or remote Australia, drugs are being used in our communities. And what goes on in the community can be brought to your organisation’s doorstep.

The National Drug Strategy Household Survey (2019) found around 3.4 million Australians reported using illicit drugs in the previous year—most commonly cannabis, followed by ecstasy, misused pharmaceuticals and cocaine. Wastewater analysis by the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission in 2020 found methylamphetamine to be the illicit drug most used by Australians, consuming an estimated 11.1 tonnes along with 5.6 tonnes of cocaine, 2.6 tonnes of MDMA and 1 tonne of heroin.

This does have unfortunate implications for workplaces.

In harm’s way

In 2020 a Melbourne truck driver allegedly affected by illicit drugs and fatigue was involved in a horror crash killing four police officers at a routine traffic stop. It’s a recent example of the potential for tragic consequences.

People who come to work under the influence present an injury hazard to themselves and put others in danger or in the difficult position of being expected to cover for unsafe work practices, explains a Safe Work Australia (SWA) spokeswoman.

“Co-ordination, motor control, alertness and ability to exercise judgement can become affected by alcohol and drug use. These safety risks are greater where people operate machinery, drive vehicles or plant, or rely on concentration to do their work.”

This, she explains, can result in:

  • workplace accidents, injuries or equipment damage
  • increased absenteeism and reduced productivity
  • poor teamwork, workplace relationships and harmful behaviours
  • disciplinary or conduct problems.

Risky business

Past research shows the construction, mining and hospitality sectors to be areas with high use of the methamphetamine drug, ice. In 2019, the National Centre for Education and Training on Addiction explored construction employees’ use of cannabis, cocaine and methamphetamines. Consumption of each drug over the previous 12 months was found to be two to five times higher than national averages.

Safe Work Australia explains psychological injury and workplace psychosocial hazards (things that cause prolonged or acute stress) such as high work demand, fatigue and bullying can contribute to drug and alcohol abuse.

“Effectively managing these hazards will also help to minimise drug and alcohol related risks,” the SWA spokeswoman explains. For more on strategies visit: www.safeworkaustralia.gov.au

Taking control

Tackling drugs at work is complicated but Carl Lundberg, a biotechnology expert and founder of APAC Diagnostic, says testing is one proactive approach businesses can take.

“The most objective method would be through wastewater testing,” he explains. It’s highly effective in a defined population but has limitations where multiple workplaces share the same sewer.

“An alternative is random drug testing where, for example, the employer randomly tests a quarter of its workforce four times per year.” Drugs can be detected from blood, oral fluid, urine, hair and sweat using an immunoassay device which functions in the same way as a pregnancy test; a line represents a negative result and no line a presumptive positive, Lundberg explains.

Just like Australia’s approach to covid-19, knowing where the problem exists and to what extent is crucial. Workplace drug testing gives businesses the insight it needs to operate safely and responsibly while helping to minimise the risks.

Illicit Drugs – Which countries party with pills

Sewage study shows which countries indulge over the new year

In a new paper published in Water Research, the world’s most comprehensive wastewater analysis of NPS shows the pattern of designer drug use in the 2019/2020 New Year in 14 sites across Australia, New Zealand, China, The Netherlands, Spain, Italy, Norway and the United States.

Research from the University of South Australia show that the Netherlands United States Australia and New Zealand are consuming the highest amounts of new illicit drugs according to the waste water samples taken from eight countries over the New Year period.

UniSA Analytical chemist Dr Richard Bade says samples were shipped to South Australia for analysis. More than 200 synthetic drugs across all countries were monitored and 16 substances found. “The eight countries studied, only Norway showed no traces of new psychoactive substances (NPS)”, he says.

New psychoactive substances a range of drugs that have been designed to mimic established illicit drugs, such as cannabis, cocaine, MDMA, and LSD.

“ The Netherlands recorded the highest usage, followed by Australia, New Zealand and the United States. Spain, Italy and China had the lowest incident of designer drugs used in cities participating in the study.”

N-Ethylpentylobe, which is known to cause fatalities, was seen in Australia, New Zealand and the US.

It has previously been detected in forensics samples at music festivals in Australia and NZ. Another design a drug called mephedrone (often referred to as drone, M-CAT and meow meow), was found only in Australia and New Zealand. I knew a drug on the market – eutylone – was seen in Australia, New Zealand, are US and the Netherlands. High dose of it have been linked to intense and particularly dangerous side-effects.

“What makes the NPS so dangerous is that they were originally sold is legal alternatives to to conventional illicit drugs such as ecstasy and cannabis suggesting they were safe when, in fact, there was very little information about their toxicity,” says dr Bade

“Governments soon intervened after hospitalisations and fatalities were linked to these class of drugs with some countries enforcing blanket bans. However, despite these bans, NPS are still synthesised, transported and consumed across the world, often with fatal consequences.”

Dr Bade says he hopes that wastewater samples will help complement hospital, legal and forensic data, along with global surveys, to identify which designer drugs are the most dangerous in the community.

What are the financial impacts of drugs and alcohol at work?

How drugs and alcohol at work can hurt your bottom line

In many industries, such as road and rail transport, maritime and mining occupations, the law provides a legal blood alcohol level and prohibits workers from being affected by drugs of any kind (prescription or illicit).

Other companies have their own policies about alcohol and illicit substances. This is important when a worker uses heavy machinery or is in danger of injuring or killing themselves or another person.

In industries without legislation, the impacts of drugs and alcohol in a workplace can be tricky to manage. However, if a person is under the influence, it’s bound to affect the way they do their job, no matter what it is. This is almost certainly going to have consequences for your business bottom line.

Here we look at some of the financial impacts of drugs and alcohol at work.

Absenteeism and Presenteeism

One of the major effects of drugs and alcohol at work is the impact it can have on absenteeism. Australian workers admit they’ve taken a staggering 11.5 million sick days per year because of alcohol and drug use.

All those sick days make a huge financial impact on our businesses – they cost workplaces about $3bn a year (1).

These days off aren’t just being taken by alcohol and drug dependent people either. According to the Australian Safety and Compensation Council (2), it’s those moderate drinkers who occasionally drink to excess or use illicit drugs who make the biggest impact.

When those impaired workers have a big weekend, then turn up to work, it can also cost your business. According to Knowledge Manager for Policy and Advocacy for the Alcohol and Drug Foundation Laura Bajurny, presenteeism can be a huge issue in the workplace. This is when workers turn up but work at less-than-optimal levels.

“If someone is experiencing the aftereffects of drugs or alcohol, it can impact their productivity. It’s not always as noticeable – small mistakes, forgetfulness, not producing what you normally would. It might seem like a small figure, but it really adds up over time,” she said.

It’s believed that alcohol alone leads to $6bn in reduced productivity (3) in Australia each year.

Hiring costs and the impact on workplace culture

For all that lack of productivity, there’s another key group who feels the pinch–their colleagues. One study suggests (4) that one in 10 employees have been impacted by another colleagues’ use of alcohol. They may have covered for them by doing their work or were involved in an accident or close call.

“You don’t want to go into work, particularly if you’re working with heavy machinery, and be worried that your colleague hasn’t slept in a few days or isn’t on their game,” Laura said.

Employee retention is often a key goal to any business, as the cost of frequent staff turnover can be debilitating. Having a safe and productive workplace is key to staff retention.

“Everyone wants to work in a safe environment,” Laura said.

Insurance and financial implications

When workers aren’t performing at their best, it can lead to mistakes. And in some industries, it can have catastrophic consequences, particularly when there are machinery and vehicles involved.

In any insurance policy, there are drug and alcohol exclusions. However, according to Founder and Managing Director of Crucial Insurance Tony Venning, it depends on how much the employer knows.

“Say you’re a business owner who has multiple vehicles and a number of employers who use these cars. If they have an accident while they’re under the influence and if you as an employer can demonstrate that you weren’t aware they were driving under the influence, then your policy will respond and will cover the company owned vehicle, any damage to it and any third-party property,” Tony said.

However, the insurer will do an investigation and if they find any evidence that the employer suspected the person was impaired by drugs or alcohol, then they will deny the insurance claim.

“An employer doesn’t want to get caught up in that. There’s a strong onus for employers and businesses to make sure they’re across it,” Tony said.

Workers’ compensation claims can also be denied if there is evidence of drugs or alcohol.

When an insurance company denies any type of claim, it can impact any insurance that the business applies for over the next few years.

“It will result in your renewal getting declined. And once you have that, it’s like a bad credit score and your insurance history is compromised. Under your duty of disclosure to any new insurer, you have to disclose all relevant facts… Once you have an insurance record that has been declined because of drugs or alcohol, it’s very hard to get insurance full stop,” Tony warned.

Reputational damage

When the workplace has a culture of alcohol or has shown a blind eye to drugs, it can impact the company’s reputation.

This can change the type of people who apply for jobs, which impacts the overall culture.

“Do you want to have a workplace that is known for being indulgent around alcohol or has a drug focused culture? That’s going to attract a certain type of employee, but it’s going to drive away other employees who aren’t interested in working in that type of environment,” Laura explained.

Unfortunately, even one story in the media about an employee who did the wrong thing can have a detrimental impact on your reputation.

How can you manage your drug and alcohol risk?

To lower your financial risk of drug and alcohol in the workplace, there are some things you can do:

  • Create a drug and alcohol policy so workers know what’s acceptable, and what’s not.
  • Educate your staff about this policy through regular trainings and in employee induction.
  • Set up a workplace drug testing program and outline these procedures in your drug and alcohol policy.
  • Provide a positive, safety-focused culture where employees can confidentially report any concerns they have about drugs and alcohol at work.
  • Provide employees with the right support to manage their addiction, including access to counselling or an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) where available.


  1. Ann Roche, Ken Pidd, Victoria Kostadinov. Alcohol- and drug-related absenteeism: a costly problem. s.l. : Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health, 2016. 40:236-8; doi: 10.1111/1753-6405.12414.
  2. Smith, Dianna. Work-related Alcohol and Drug Use – A Fit for Work Issue. Canberra : Australian Safety and Compensation Council, 2007. ISBN 978-0-642-32632-4.
  3. Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. Alcohol, tobacco & other drugs in Australia. Canberra : Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, 2021. v16.0.
  4. The burden of alcohol drinking on co-workers in the Australian workplace. Livingston, Caroline E Dale and Michael J. 3, s.l. : The Medical Journal of Australia, 2010, Vol. 193. doi: 10.5694/j.1326-5377.2010.tb03831.x.