by Rhys Evans - ALCO Safe

Substance Abuse In Mines

Better control with broader understanding

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The first priority for any mine is keeping workers who are under the influence of drugs and alcohol off the site. However, to manage and reduce incidents of abuse, a broader understanding of the causes and a holistic strategy to address them, is needed.

How big is the problem?

In South Africa, the prevalence of alcohol dependence among adults is estimated at 10% while that of risky drinking among workforces such as the mining industry has been estimated at 25% or more. In a South African gold mine, the prevalence of risky drinking among workers was found to be 32%.

A study by the Mining Health and Safety Council of South Africa tested approximately 2000 miners across seven mines for substance abuse. The goal: to determine the prevalence and factors which influence alcohol and cannabis use among mineworkers in South Africa.

The study found that:

  • Of the almost 50% of workers that used alcohol, just over 15% showed alcohol dependence. About one third of alcohol users (28.9%) drink alcohol five to six days in a week, while almost one tenth of participants (9.3%) drink alcohol every day.
  • The prevalence of cannabis use varied between 4.6% and 21.5% across mines, with a mean of 9.1%.

The effect of substance abuse

Employees suffering from substance abuse are more likely to have problems with perception and motor skills, suffer from anxiety, paranoia, depression, and violent behaviour, have difficulty concentrating and processing information, and are more likely to make lapses in judgement. On site, workers who have alcohol in their blood or use cannabis are a danger to themselves and their co-workers. A single mistake can cost many lives, result in work stoppage and ultimately, loss of income for the mine.

Driven by this knowledge, the need to comply with health and safety regulations and the growing impact of loss of reputation that such incidents result in, many mines have put measures in place to manage substance abuse. But stopping abuse at the mine gates is not enough.

To stop abuse, understand the causes

The study notes that stress, loneliness, poverty, boredom, and inadequate health education contribute to the use of both cannabis and alcohol. These study results agree with the knowledge we have acquired through 25 years’ experience in providing mines in South Africa and Africa with breathalyser and drug testing solutions to help them test for, monitor and control substance abuse.

In my experience, this is borne out in the contrast we see in the low levels of abuse at established mines where a community has grown around the mine and miners have their families to go home to, versus high levels of abuse at newly or poorly established mines where miners are away from their families, stress levels are high and there are few amenities.

What has become increasingly clear that the mines that are most successful at reducing the abuse are the ones that make an effort to understand what drives substance abuse, address it, and create a culture of safety that permeates the workplace and extends into the community.

Miners agree. The Mining Health and Safety Council of South Africa study indicated that participants were well aware of the dangers of alcohol abuse in the workplace and that they felt that both alcohol and cannabis use could be controlled among mineworkers through awareness programmes, substance use testing, rehabilitation programs to assist those who use substances, disciplinary measures for offenders, and recreational facilities to relieve boredom.

Implement controls, build a sober culture

The controls—breathalysers and random drug testing—have a significant effect in curbing substance abuse and ensuring miners use these substances more responsibly.

The mines selected for the study all had codes of conduct in place that variously prohibited possession or use of substances in the workplace. Some had established regular and random testing procedures; others only tested when an incident occurred. The majority had instituted disciplinary measures and had rehabilitation programs in place for workers diagnosed with chronic abuse.

  • The highest cannabis use prevalence (21.5%) and breathalyser results above the legal driving limit (5.9%), occurred at a mine which had no mechanisms in place to implement the measures in its code of conduct.
  • Mines with alcohol policies where random breathalyser testing of employees was carried out at work had lower levels of positive breathalyser results.

However, to better manage substance use and abuse, a holistic awareness programme is needed that is upheld by all stakeholders—from the mine authorities to the workers and their representatives—and reaches into mining communities.

In South Africa, much remains to be done to curb substance abuse in mines—a single incident caused by someone using drugs or alcohol is one to many. As the testing equipment for both alcohol and drug use continues to become easier to use and more cost effective, mines need to continually review their options and stay abreast of not just new equipment, but new approaches to address worker wellbeing.

Rhys Evans, MD at ALCO Safe

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