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Rural workplaces are marked by an expectation of regular drinking and long and irregular work hours. Flickr/.deeneg, CC BY

‘If you don’t have a beer you’re not a man’ – rural workplaces made more dangerous by drugs and alcohol

Farming is a dangerous industry. Safe Work Australia’s report on deaths at work has found that farming, fishing and forestry accounted for 23% of all workplace deaths in 2014. Farming alone recorded 20% (38 people) of those deaths.

Farming involves long irregular hours, isolation, high stress and job insecurity. The work is directed by seasons, markets and weather. All of these things can encourage drug and alcohol use. Research into substance misuse clearly finds strong links between [the use of drugs and alcohol and mental health problems, physical injury, reduced workplace productivity, accidents, drink-driving and violence.

Our study of 145 farming and fishing workers described their use of drugs and alcohol, their understanding of drug and alcohol-related problems and how the work environment influenced their drinking and drug use.

Nearly half (44%) of people in the study drank alcohol at high risk levels. This is a lot higher than in the general Australian population where 16% of people who live in rural areas are moderate to high risk drinkers. Cannabis was the most common illegal drug used (12.7%) followed by amphetamines (8.5%). Some 20% of study participants reported working while affected by illegal drugs during the past 12 months compared to 2% in most Australian workplaces. One third of people in the study smoked tobacco and it was the drug they were most concerned about using.

Two thirds of people in the study reported psychological distress.

There were three main things found in the study that encouraged drug and alcohol use - an expectation of regular drinking, long and irregular work hours and a lack of information and support to address substance problems.

Drinking alcohol regularly was normal. One farmer said:

If someone drops around you’ve got to have beer. That is common practice. As soon as you run out of beer there is a potential problem. If someone drops around and you can’t offer them a beer personally you would feel that you’d failed.

Another described drinking as part of the male farming culture where “if you don’t have a beer you’re not a man”.

Most of the study participants described work pressures including long hours related to weather and the need to harvest when a crop was ready.

Yeah, I had my mate that was going to work just out the road here one morning last year on harvest time and he was just doing big hours and he went and had a few beers and went home and that morning he just fell asleep at the wheel and it just caught up to him – he died.

Long hours and irregular hours can mean people use drugs to stay awake and keep working. A farm owner said:

I’ve been out harvesting… it’ll be three or two o’clock in the morning and they’re bouncing around and then they start grinding their teeth. Yeah, so I do find it a lot when they’re doing 24 hour work. Like some of them might go for three days.

Drinking and drug use outside work hours can cause problems during work from hangovers or the ongoing use of cannabis or amphetamines to keep going but few employers made the connection. One said “so as long as they do their job, what they did the night before is irrelevant to me.

Industry groups such as The Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry agree that employees should turn up fit for work. Employers should expect employees to present for work in a state that is safe and productive, and to clamp down on misuse of sick leave.

Employers in our study did not recognise the link between work place demands, encouragement of risky alcohol consumption and an employee’s substance use.

They put the responsibility back on employees to sort out their drinking or drug use. Even though they did recognise the costs to their industry of not stepping in when they knew there was a problem.

"And if you’re hung over and that, you haven’t got the concentration. And with the amount of money and the machinery, and you have a malfunction, they don’t pick it up, it could cost you bloody a $100 000, or they bugger up and you’re planting or something like that, it could cost you a million dollars because they haven’t done the job right, see?

Some employers have turned to drug testing as a solution but there is limited evidence that testing reduces drug and alcohol use or substance problems of employees. There seems to be only two programs that work with employers to address drug and alcohol use at work.

The WHRAP program helps big workplaces (more than 100 employees) develop work place policies; and Drug and Alcohol First Aid in the Workplace trains employers and managers to understand substance use and talk to employees they are worried about in a non-confrontational way.

When people in the study tried to get professional help to change their substance use they found it was hard to get to, or not available at all.

There is no occupational health service, employee assistance program or workplace health screening for the mobile, casual and self employed farming workforce. Half of the deaths on Australian farms between 2003 and 2014 were vehicle related, in tractors, cars and quad bikes.

Drug and alcohol use may be a contributing factor and employers need advice and support to address substance use, particularly alcohol, directly with employees and to develop work place practices that discourage substance use.

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