Alcohol, drug stand sees labour pool shrink

Rural sector employers say they need to take a united stand against employing those who choose to work under the influence alcohol or drugs, putting safety and the business at risk.

However, the outcome of adopting such a stance has been to shrink their already limited labour pool, they say.

Employers across all sectors are becoming more vigilant about drug and alcohol testing in the workplace, as well as pre-employment testing, because they have a duty under the Health and Safety in Employment Act to provide a safe workplace.

Last year, the New Zealand Drug Detection Agency, which is a privately owned company that carries out on-site drug screening, was called on to test more than 68,000 employees nationwide (up 31% on 2011), 8266 of whom were in Canterbury - almost double the number tested there in 2011.

Many rural employers have well-established procedures and policies on site to test for alcohol.

Landcorp Farming Ltd national recruitment and training manager Al McCone said the state-owned enterprise had had a drug and alcohol policy in place since 2007.

Landcorp Farming Ltd, one of the country's largest farmers, strictly enforced its alcohol policy and was looking to extend its drug policy, Mr McCone said.

Pre-employment drug testing was already mandatory and at present it was consulting staff about expanding its workplace testing to include random testing, he said.

Staff were required to take on many responsibilities on farm.

This included dealing with animals and machinery - a potentially ''hazardous'' mix, he said.

''We need people in full control of their faculties.''

Anecdotally, there seemed to be more people in rural communities using drugs, he said.

There was certainly a culture of ''hitting the drink''.

''Alcohol is more of an issue in the rural community than people want to discuss.''

Drug use seemed to be a factor making it difficult for some people to get work, he said.

''As soon as they find out we have an entry drug test they will hang up [the phone].

''It's reducing the population we can draw our workers from.''

It was human nature that such behaviour would not change unless employers made a stand, he said.

''[However] a lot of small business owners lack the knowledge of what to do and how to deal with it [drug use] and when to deal with it,'' Mr McCone said.

New Zealand Shearing Contractors' Association president Barry Pullin agrees employers should form a united front.

''We are all drawing from the same labour pool,'' Mr Pullin said.

''It draws a line in the sand.''

Potential employees could be sure there were standards in place and their safety would not be at risk, he said.

He knew of about 10 shearing contractors who tested for drugs on an ''official, structured basis''.

''There is a need for a lot more [drug-testing].''

Alcohol was the bigger problem and a ''huge'' number of contractors breath-tested their drivers and conducted random breath tests on their crew, he said.

Critically, employers needed to have the right wording in contracts, policies and procedures, so they could enforce their stance lawfully, he said.

There were templates available which covered pre-employment, random, reasonable-cause and post-incident testing.

''Set it up so you can use all of these.''

Costs were mostly in time and should not put off small employers.

''As contractors we all run on the skin of our teeth. We don't have a big HR department [and] the cost is in the time and the set-up.''

DairyNZ people team leader Jane Muir said she believed more farmers were carrying out pre-employment and on-farm drug testing.

The subject had come up more regularly in discussion groups and often there was someone in the group who had been ''down that track'', Ms Muir said.

A united stand was ''the ideal'', and showed there was ''no place for drugs on farms''.

However, the shortage of labour meant it posed a ''challenge''.

Work on dairy farm involved working with other people and with a food product. Employees must be heedful of health and safety and have good skills, attitude and concentration, she said.

To attract and keep the best employees and keep drugs and alcohol out of the workplace employers had to build a reputation as an ''employer of choice'', provide ''great'' working conditions and encourage staff to be involved in the business, Ms Muir said.

Contracts, systems, policies and procedures around drug-testing must be sound and adhered to by the employer, as well as the employee, she said.

''If you say you have random testing then you must carry out random testing.

''Be aware, even if someone tests positive, there is still a process that must be followed,'' Ms Muir said.

New Zealand Drug Detection Agency Canterbury general manager Russell Scott said the requests for testing services varied and it seemed to depend on how busy employers were.

''When there are heavy workloads it is easy to put the fundamentals of health and safety to one side.''


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