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Constructing a healthy culture around alcohol and other drugs

With the Christchurch rebuild bringing thousands of construction workers into the city, concerns rose about the high use of alcohol and other drugs (AOD) in the industry.

Ministry of Health figures from 2012/13 show that 15% of New Zealanders aged over 15 have a potentially hazardous drinking pattern. However, research from the Alcohol and other Drugs Construction Team (made up of four major construction companies and various government organisations) commissioned through late 2014/early 2015 showed that figure was even higher among construction workers.

“In early 2014 the Alcohol and Drug Helpline reported they were getting a lot of construction workers calling for support,” says Mark Taylor, the AOD Group chair and Naylor Love’s Canterbury Regional Safety Manager.

“We knew we needed to do something to help these people before they got to the point of needing to ask for help. So that was the spark to start raising awareness about AOD use. We wanted to give everyone on site the tools to spot the signs if someone at work has a problem, to self-manage, and to know where to go for help.

“We also wanted to make sure everyone knows that if they come to work impaired they’re far more likely to do something stupid, or do poor work.”

With strength in numbers, four major construction companies – Hawkins, Naylor Love, Fletchers and Corbel – banded together to form the Alcohol and Other Drugs Construction Team.

The companies were supported by the Mental Health Education and Resource Centre (MHERC), Alcohol Drug Association NZ (ADANZ), the Accident Compensation Corporation (ACC) and WorkSafe, with funding support from the Canterbury District Health Board and the Health Promotion Agency (HPA).

The group’s aims were to do the following:

  1. Promote low-risk drinking behaviour.
  2. Reduce workplace injuries – as a consequence of having unimpaired workers at work.
  3. Enable people within the construction industry to help and support others who asked for help or who failed an alcohol and other drugs test.
  4. Create a foundation for culture change around alcohol and other drugs in the wider community.

Workshops and toolbox talks

To achieve those aims, the group developed workshops and toolbox talks facilitated by an addiction specialist registered nurse. These aimed to increase knowledge and awareness about alcohol and other drug use, and improve support to those who need it by giving participants:

  • brief intervention skills (how to ask someone if they need help, or offer them help if you know they do)
  • the ability to talk about alcohol and other drugs to workers, for example at toolbox talks
  • referral pathways for managers to help their people get support
  • information materials to take away with them.

During 2015 the group held 16 workshops (funded by the Canterbury District Health Board) for 155 construction workers, as well as 10 one-hour onsite toolbox talks to 162 construction staff.

ACC then funded an AOD breakfast for small to medium business owners, to which 230 employers came. “The breakfast went really, really well,” says Mark. “In fact, we had to call a stop to all the questions. There’s such a demand for knowledge out there.

“From that we knew we needed to develop tools and resources for smaller contractors. A suite of materials is now available, including a four-page fact sheet that covers how to implement a policy, information on the issue of alcohol and drugs, and where to seek help.”

The factsheet is loaded on the Canterbury Rebuild Safety Charter website, which also features a toolbox talk, and links to get more information and support from AOD-focused organisations.

Culture change from the top

Mark says getting the site managers to understand their own drinking was crucial. “To a lot of our young workers, heavy drinking is just normal. We need to keep the message going that it’s okay to go for non-alcoholic or low-alcohol drink options. We need them to lead the culture change.”

He says the culture is changing and points to the lower drink driving laws as being a big help. “Quite often the guys will have only a couple of beers after work rather than four, so it is changing. But these things take time. The word is getting out, though, and I’ve noticed quite a lot of self and peer-to-peer management around AOD.”


Figures from an evaluation of site managers and employees who went to the workshops backs up what Mark has noticed, showing that as a result of the workshops:

  • 94% of site managers said they will think more about their own alcohol or drug use
  • 65% of site managers agreed or strongly agreed they intend to reduce their alcohol intake
  • 14% of site managers responded they intend to reduce their drug use (81% responded this question wasn’t applicable)
  • 80% of employees agreed or strongly agreed they will think more about their alcohol or drug use
  • 46% of employees responded they would reduce their alcohol intake
  • 97% of site managers responded they are more likely to take action if they suspect people are under the influence of AOD on their work site
  • 91% of employees responded they are more likely to take action if they suspect people are under the influence are on their work site.

And the evaluation showed that of the people who attended workshops that included brief intervention guidance, 83% said they now feel confident to approach a workmate who seems impaired at work.

Mark says the demand is still there for the workshops and they could still be run, but companies now have to fund them.

“We’ve got it all together and now I’d like to push it out further,” says Mark. “People who work in construction need to do all sorts of tickets – working at heights, site safety, etc. I’d like to see them have to do something on AOD so they really understand that heavy drinking or doing drugs just isn’t healthy, and that coming to work after a heavy night just isn’t safe.”

For more information about the Alcohol and other Drugs Construction Team's work, email Mark Taylor.

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