Drugs and alcohol compromise workplace safety

July 9, 2008
Managing Editor Lisa Towers says workplace safety comes down to personal responsibility, especially when drugs and alcohol are involved.

How many times have you gone to work hung over or stoned, or have known about others you work with who have done so?

According to the American Council for Drug Education (ACDE), more than 70% of substance abusers hold jobs. One worker in four, ages 18 to 34, has used drugs in the past year, and one worker in three has knowledge of drug sales in the workplace. 

A recent study conducted by the World Health Organization (WHO) reports that the United States leads the world in illegal drug use, followed closely by New Zealand. So when you hear electrician Fred Delahunty’s story, one could very easily imagine trading places with him. He works in the pulp and paper industry for ABB at Kawerau in the Bay of Plenty, New Zealand.

One day — one second — is all it took to put his life in jeopardy: A 3,300-V switch blew up when he was 2 feet in front of it. Delahunty was burned over 60% of his body and he languished in a burn unit for 3 ½ months, 46 days of which he was unconscious. “I was given a 0% chance of living,” he recalls.

If you’ve ever had the privilege of hearing Delahunty speak about his experiences, the images he shows of his charred, bloated body are ones you’ll never forget — nor should you. They’re pictures of what really happens when you work with people who are careless about workplace safety. Those who are addled by drugs or drink can easily slip into unsafe work practices that put everyone at risk.

“I knew I was hanging onto life by a cotton thread,” Delahunty says. His fight to avoid becoming a workplace statistic began in earnest when he regained consciousness. “I couldn’t afford to think negatively,” he says.

Along with his wife’s and family’s support, Delahunty says, “I used my mind to think my way out of it.” He began by squeezing a squash ball as many times as he could, and then put in another set of squeezes. He reached a milestone when he took four steps with the aid of  crutches. “Each step was like I had won a gold medal,” he says. “Once I got out of the bed, I was never depressed. I knew what my target was.”

He endured four years of operations, skin grafts and all the horrors of dealing emotionally and physically with a life-changing accident. But he made the most of it. “Why sit back and waste it?” he thought. That’s when he began giving presentations about his experience. “This can really happen — we can really get killed in the workplace. An accident can build until something like this happens. Don’t end up going on the journey I had to take,” he cautions.

Delahunty was an athlete before the accident, and remains one to this day. It’s what helped get him out of the burn unit and back to a new kind of normalcy. “I refused to let this accident rule my life,” he says.

When he got home from the hospital, he set up his bicycle on a stand in his garage so he could train for the Lake Taupo Cycle Challenge, a 100-mile bike race that he participated in before the accident. After months of training and perseverance, he cycled through the race and was only three minutes slower than his fastest time before the accident. He even went back to work at the same paper mill where the accident took place.

His experience was a catalyst for change in the organization, and the company’s approach to safety has been overhauled. “We get complacent about what we do because we’ve never had an accident,” Delahunty says. “I had a good reputation of never working dangerously, but it was a bad atmosphere to work in. These guys [who I worked with] took bad risks and their bad work practices transferred onto me.”

If Delahunty’s words set off alarm bells of recognition within you, be honest with yourself and your maintenance team: Fix the problems now before someone gets hurt. “People with a drug problem or alcohol problem — don’t make any excuses — you can’t work safely,” he warns. “If you haven’t had an accident yet, it’s not good planning, that’s good luck.”

E-mail Managing Editor Lisa Towers at [email protected].

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