Substance abuse: protecting the workplace

Alcohol abuse has been with us since the year toot. It’s increasing drug abuse at home and in the workplace that needs careful attention from government and corporates alike. But firing a company director, manager or labourer for abuse is not so easy, writes UDO RYPSTRA

Alcohol and drug abuse in and outside the workplace is on the increase and so are the number of habit-forming substances that people discover or buy to cope with the increasing pressures of life, to escape reality or to put some “kick” back into their lives.

The latest substance to be revealed is the township drug “whoonga”, which is said to be made up of crushed HIV or ARVs (antiretroviral) drugs mixed with other drugs, but which, according to president Jacob Zuma, is made up of heroin mixed with rat poison and other chemicals. Take your pick.

Speaking at the recent Second Biennial Summit on substance abuse, he gave experts from the University of KwaZulu-Natal as his source. This after having earlier visited a drug clinic on Mitchell’s Plain, when he was shocked by alcohol and drug abuse in the Western and Northern Cape, which included nine-year-old children drinking alcoholic drinks on their way to school.

Whoonga joins a long list of other relatively cheap drugs such as alcohol, cannabis (dagga), tik, speed, mandrax, crack and others. Some have a base such as bicarbonate of soda to make them cheaper for what some drug dealers call the base of the “drug user pyramid” or “triangle”. This base comprises the labour force and, further up, the working class.

The same drugs are used by upper management, company directors and people in the arts, music and media business, but in a more refined form. The move appears to be to heroin, pinks (Welconal), cocaine, vasperax, tuinal, valium and other prescribed drugs and cough mixtures containing codeine phosphate.

Reports indicate most drugs are brought in from South America, Eastern Europe, North and Central Africa by international drug merchants, who use smaller dealers to distribute their products to runners manning night clubs, brothels, shopping malls, supermarkets, takeaways and petrol stations, many often posing as guards or parking attendants.

Higher up the triangle, celebrities and VIPs – including a new generation of so-called Black Diamonds with lots of disposable income – will make bulk deals directly with merchants and dealers themselves at more posh venues. Fact is that alcohol and drug abuse is increasing in poor communities, in the workplace, as well as in high society circles.

This has prompted Zuma to promise drastic action this year to reduce the scourge. Apart from having urged people not to tolerate drug dealers and their runners in their communities but to drive them out, he has also called for more research about the latest trends in local drug trafficking to achieve this goal.

There is an onus on business to stop the rot that reduces productivity, maybe firstly by tightening security through better gate control, visitor screening methods and perimeter surveillance to keep traffickers out. In the fuel transport industry, many operators will put all their drivers and other staff through a breathalyser test when they come to work.

The next is to watch out for the “inside story” – unusual employee appearance, an unsteady walk, bloodshot eyes, slurred speech, or an alcoholic breath. The final part is to apply the old Romberg test used by cops and district surgeons where the employee will be required to walk a white line painted on the floor with his arms held out horizontally.

The disturbing point is that employees who are addicted to alcohol or drugs and fail to respond to rehabilitation programmes, sponsored or not, are protected by labour law decisions if the right dismissal procedures are not followed by the employer.

A simple case study is the matter of Astore Africa (Pty) Ltd v CCMA & others [2008] 1 BLLR 14 (LC) where an employer dismissed an employee (a truck driver) for being drunk on duty and well over the legal limit of 0,05 in terms of the Road Traffic Act. The CCMA at arbitration ordered reinstatement of the employee, stating that the employer had failed to prove that the driver was incapable of driving.

This decision is one of many advocating employers to introduce and maintain a written Zero Tolerance Alcohol and Drug Abuse Policy, which incorporate provisions of the Occupational Health and Safety Act, Act 85 of 1993, in particular general safety regulation number 2A, which addresses the issue of intoxication. This regulation states that any employer or a user, as the case may be, “shall not permit any person who is, or who appears to be under the influence of intoxicating liquor or drugs, to enter or remain at a workplace”. It also states that “no person at a workplace shall be under the influence of, or have in his or her possession, or partake of or offer to any other person intoxicating substances”.

According to the SA Labour Guide, the same policy should also clearly stipulate what the testing procedures must be if an employee comes in, allegedly just suffering from the night before, still smelling of liquor, or is unsteady on his or her feet, or showing other signs of substance abuse.

Again, procedures must be followed. For example, before the test procedure commences, the employee is entitled to have a representative to assist him, and the employer will also have a representative present as a witness. The test procedure requires the employee to blow on a reliable and properly calibrated breathalyser, preferably one that also measures the blood alcohol content as well as the alcohol content in the breath. All this means that if an employee who is under the influence of alcoholic liquor or drugs, or who appears to be under the influence of alcoholic liquor or drugs, arrives at the work premises, the employer is legally obliged to refuse him or her entry to the premises, with the words in this safety regulation “or who appears to be” becoming vitally important.

In the case of drug abuse, the screening and testing of an employee or company director who smiles at you with sapphire blue eyes and peppermint on his or her breath, but is not quite “with it”, becomes more difficult, as it would often involve the use of clinical blood and urine tests and more correct procedures to follow.

The SA Labour Guide, which records numerous labour law decisions, also deals with this aspect in quite some detail and can be accessed on the Internet
at www.labourguide.co.za for further information.

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