Substance abuse in mining industry

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Wile the mining industry’s awareness of the importance of substance abuse management and assistance programmes for employees is slowly increasing, there has not been a significant shift towards implementing these programmes, says specialist health and wellness company Workforce Healthcare MD Dr Richard Malkin.

He tells Mining Weekly that such implementation in the mining industry might be difficult, owing to a lack of understanding of its importance, in addition to the cost factors involved in testing, the different tests for substance abuse and the management policies of various mining companies.

Substance Abuse
Malkin agrees with the Community Epidemiology Network on Drug Use, which suggested in media reports in 2013 that cannabis and alcohol were the most commonly abused drugs in the mining industry, adding that they remain the most prevalent drugs of choice in the mining industry.

Research on substance abuse in the mining sector compiled by Workforce Healthcare further highlights that “it is estimated that 6% to 16% of the average workforce is likely to be alcohol dependent and that . . . 20% is likely to experience drug-related problems”.

The research further points out that, in South Africa, risky drinking among workforces, such as that of the mining industry, has been estimated at 25% and higher.

Research has also found that, “the lifestyle of mineworkers, such as living apart from families for prolonged periods, was found to encourage unhealthy alcohol consumption”, Malkin says.

Owing to the stressful working conditions, there were higher rates of alcohol use among mineworkers who have only ever worked underground, compared with those who work aboveground, and among mineworkers with a heavy workload. Further, research has shown that a heavy workload might encourage alcohol and drug use, which might serve as coping mechanisms, Malkin adds.

Assistance Programmes
“The impact of an integrated substance abuse and employee assistance programme (EAP) in the mining industry can be powerful, necessitating implementation,” Malkin stresses.

He adds that EAPs assist employees battling with substance addictions by guiding them towards a healthier, drug-free lifestyle.

Workforce Healthcare specialises in these employee wellness programmes, as well as wellness days, primary and occupational healthcare, mobile and fixed medical screening, substance abuse training and testing, HIV/Aids testing and training, tuberculosis management, and absenteeism management.

“While a marginal percentage of companies run these programmes, programme use increases significantly when there are, for example, labour issues in the industry or economic uncertainty,” Malkin points out.

However, the substance abuse and employee wellness programmes are not always a complete cycle because testing procedures and confirmatory testing elements are often not completed, he acknowledges.

The testing process comprises two elements: a simple screening procedure, during which a commercial substance will determine illegal substances in urine or saliva, and confirmatory testing done by a laboratory, which is required to complete the cycle and is legally defensible.

“Owing to the costs involved, screening as a form of testing is normally the beginning and end of testing for substance abuse. Not many organisations will proceed to confirmation testing,” Malkin explains.

Thus, it remains vital for mines to have the policies in place that will enable them to measure and test employees for substance abuse, particularly those that work in high-risk mining areas.

However, Malkin acknowledges that experience has indicated that some operators do not always have rigid policies and procedures regarding testing in place.

He, therefore, also stresses the need for awareness regarding the significance of the right type of policy for substance abuse testing that should be linked to a preventative programme, which is part of the employee assistance programme.