The COVID-19 pandemic has placed significant stress on the community and economy. To avoid exposure to the virus, many workplaces have reduced the number of staff working onsite. Despite this, 95 Australians have been killed at work so far this year (as of 16 July 2020), while 100 workers lost their lives during the same period last year. So, despite lockdowns, more working from home and different rosters or production schedules, the number of workers dying at work has remained roughly the same.
While the reasons for these workplace deaths have not yet been fully investigated, the results are troubling. Workplaces always present safety risks, but now employers are also grappling with the effects of increased alcohol and drug consumption by workers during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Alcohol sales from bottle shops have increased by 25% since the pandemic started. Indeed, bottle shops are classed as “essential services” during the lockdowns, including the current Stage 4 lockdown in Victoria. The FARE Australia poll (March 2020) indicated that 70% of Australians admitted to drinking more alcohol. While a study from Australian National University has shown that there has been an increase in the use of illicit drugs, often associated with an increase in alcohol consumption.
What can employers do? Firstly, ensure a robust drug and alcohol policy is in place and that all employees understand what is expected of them. A well-developed training program can assist workers and managers understand the policy and to recognize when a co-worker is unsafe and unfit for work. Implementing a drug and alcohol testing program is an effective means of reducing the risk of drug and alcohol use in the workplace. Finally, providing an Employee Assistance Program is beneficial in supporting employees with alcohol or drug issues, as well as management of stress or conflict.