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BDA blog: Finding the prescription for the abuse of legal drugs

There are many who take a painkiller prescribed for a friend or partner to ease a bit of back pain or bought an over-the-counter medicine without really knowing or understanding the potential side-effects it may present. Worse we don’t even think about how it may impact on our ability to do our day-to-day work, but how big a problem is it in the drilling sector and what can be done to tackle the issue?

bda blog simon jackson pr photo

bda blog simon jackson pr photo

Simon Jackson is a member of the British Drilling Association’s health and safety committee

These questions have been raised a number of times by members of the British Drilling Association (BDA) and while the issue of prescription drug abuse in construction is no more significant than for many other industries, the problem is real and should be addressed to prevent the occurrence of any serious consequences that may result.

So where do you start? Well, it has long been the practice in every division of the civil engineering and construction industry to carry out pre-employment, periodic, random, unannounced and “for cause” drug and alcohol testing, either during induction or on site especially where critical works are undertaken. By critical works we mean in “an environment with a higher risk than normal”, for instance on Network Rail’s managed infrastructure, off shore facilities, oil refineries, nuclear and highways, with a focus on those technicians and operatives driving plant regularly.

With the implementation of the Drink and Drug Driving Laws in March 2015, which form part of the Road Traffic Act 1988, we as individuals must be aware that certain medications can land us in trouble if we don’t address the practice of taking drugs of one kind or another.

There can be no excuses, as the legislation is very clear stating that “it’s illegal to drive if either: you’re unfit to do so because you’re on legal or illegal drugs or you have certain levels of illegal drugs in your blood (even if they haven’t affected your driving ability)”.

Where do you stand as an employer? As an employer, in addition to being a responsible member of a supply chain, we have a duty to instruct and educate the workforce to ensure that they tell us if they are taking medication of any kind. We already ask at self-assessment stage “do you have a drink or drug related issue” and action to restrict work activity can be taken, so maybe we should extend this to they should not drive too? Those members of your team who do take medication must be instructed and encouraged to talk to their doctor, pharmacist or healthcare professional, about the nature of their work and the potential impact of their prescribed drug on their work. It is not enough to self-assess the impact of any drugs we take with regards to our ability.

In the eyes of the law prescription medicines are no different from illegal drugs and in England and Wales it is illegal to drive with legal drugs in our body if it impairs our driving. It is also an offence to drive if you have over the specified limits of certain drugs in your blood and you haven’t been prescribed them.

Even drugs prescribed for stress and other recognised mental health conditions can impact on our driving ability and therefore you should only drive if you’ve been prescribed them and followed advice on how to take them by a healthcare professional or you recognise they do not render you unfit to drive. All this seems very formal, but it is essential that as an industry we look closely at our own workforce to ensure that through no fault of their own they do not become victims of ignorance. A recently taken, brief study has shown that there are operatives on site taking medication identified above as legal that are known as having a potential to affect concentration and ability to carry out safety critical tasks.

Perhaps it is time that your company directly asks the question during induction, or if suspicion is enough, the permission to write to an employee’s doctor may be requested. Medical self-assessment questionnaires are not a solution and their effectiveness is questionable too.

In answer to the broader question of what we can do, the real answer is as much about prevention and cure rather than recrimination and retribution and dumping even more legislation on individuals and employers.

  • Simon Jackson is a member of the British Drilling Association’s health and safety committee

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