Mining: Dealing with Substance Abuse in the Workplace

09 February 2018

Substance abuse is a destructive force across all levels of society. It can ruin someone’s life and the lives of those around them, with loved ones often feeling like the person they once knew has totally disappeared. Addiction is a difficult disease to diagnose but its effects are clear and destructive. The best way to treat substance abuse is to catch the symptoms early, or ideally prevent substance abuse from occurring in the first place. Given that substance abuse in the workplace is especially pervasive in mining, along with other male-dominated heavy industries, there are several necessary tips to look out for and protect your workers.

Substance Abuse in the Workplace (Mining)

The reasons for substance abuse in society are varied and disputed, with genetics, poverty, drug availability, occupation and a whole host of other factors believed to be partly responsible. It should be recognized that many of the factors responsible for addiction are outside the control of an employer. However, a worker’s psyche is affected by their occupation and their workplace environment. The mining environment is particularly conducive to substance abuse for a few reasons:

1) Mining is a male-dominated industry, which research shows has higher rates of substance abuse in the workplace than those that are gender balanced or majority female

2) The way mining work is organised, often divided into intense two-week shifts, also contributes to substance abuse among mining workers. Mines are usually located in the middle of nowhere and workers live in camps far from their loved ones and with little available entertainment options. These environmental conditions can lead to boredom and detrimental mental health issues, both of which play a part in creating an atmosphere of substance abuse.

3) Mining is also one of the most physically demanding jobs. The intense physicality and strain on the body leads to injuries. It’s not uncommon for workers to resort to abusing prescription painkillers to get through their work. Abuse of prescription painkillers is a real problem, as can be seen throughout the traditional coal mining areas of America. Many addicts, who can’t get their hands on painkillers, or whose tolerance has exceeded the effects of legal painkillers, move onto heroin with even more deadly consequences. In West Virginia, an American state synonymous with coal mining, heroin and opiate overdoses are twice the national average, killing more people than shootings and car accidents combined.

Preventing Substance Abuse Among Workers

A person can hide their addiction problem effectively for years – from their family, friends and co-workers – right up until the point their life unravels. Workers who are abusing drugs are a danger to themselves and their co-workers. It is important that the correct steps are implemented to protect all workers from harm. The key to any harm prevention strategy regarding substance abuse is identifying workers who are abusing substances and post potential dangers to the workforce as a whole. Once this is done, an employer can take steps to safeguard their workforce.

Symptoms of Substance Abuse Among Workers

The presence of these symptoms does not necessarily mean that there are issues of drug and alcohol abuse among your workers. However, if these negative signs are repeatedly exhibited among individuals in the workplace, there may be issues that need to be addressed. These signs are not specific to mining, or heavy industry in general, but are a good guide for employers looking to stay vigilant against substance abuse in the workplace:

  • Absenteeism
  • Staff turnover
  • Lower productivity
  • Low work quality
  • Low moral
  • Increased accidents
  • Theft on site

Symptoms of Substance Abuse Specific to Mining

The Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) provides a list of symptoms of substance abuse specific to mining:

  • Carelessness and worker mistakes.
  • Damaging equipment or property.
  • Being involved in numerous accidents, even if the individual in question is the one who was injured.
  • Being consistently unreliable to the detriment of the team.
  • Showing a lack of attention to detail when performing routine job duties.
  • Being unwilling to follow directions and being argumentative.
  • Unexplained/Inadequately explained absences from work or from his/her duties.
  • Being a slacker; not carrying one’s load.
  • Taking unnecessary risks.
  • Disregarding safety for self and others.

Substance abuse in the workplace is a major issue but its seriousness is magnified in mining and heavy industry. For example, the consequences of “taking unnecessary risks” will probably be very different in the restaurant industry compared to coal mining. In a restaurant an unnecessary risk could lead to a customer’s dinner being dropped on the ground, while in mining a worker taking an unnecessary risk could very easily lead to serious injury and potentially death.

So to summarize, levels of substance abuse in mining are higher than other industries and the consequences of an accident occurring as a result are likely to be far more severe than in almost any other industry. Given this situation, it seems obvious that implementing procedures to prevent substance abuse in mining should be a key part of any health and safety training.

How to Deal with Substance Abuse in the Workplace

1) Protecting workers –

Employers have an obligation to ensure the safety of its workforce to as great an extent as possible. There are many precautionary steps that employers in the mining industry take to protect their workers from hazards, including ensuring workers have the right tools, PPE and training. Employers have a responsibility to create a safe workplace, free from serious hazards. Taking into consideration the prevalence of substance abuse in mining, and the dangers associated, it is inarguable that employers have a duty to protect their workers from these dangers by creating a safe working environment

2) Drug and alcohol testing –

Employers should think about testing workers for drugs and alcohol when considering how to deal with substance abuse in the workplace. In the US, 40% of industrial fatalities and 47% of industrial injuries can be linked to alcohol and alcoholism. A workplace can only be safe if the risks associated with alcohol consumption are eliminated. That’s why most mines now operate with a zero tolerance policy when it comes to drugs and alcohol. This obviously includes consumption on site but also means workers need to take care of what they do outside of work in case the substance lasts in their system.

However, implementing a zero tolerance policy is easier said than done. Some workers may be resistant to such a stringent policy but the majority will accept it eventually. The biggest potential obstacle to success is a lack of testing on site which undermines its central principle. Workers may feel that they can get away with consuming drugs and alcohol, without the fear of repercussions for having alcohol and illicit substances still in their system. Although zero tolerance policies are widespread throughout the mining industry, their effectiveness varies based on how testing is carried out from site to site.

3) Getting buy-in from workers –

Employers have a duty to create a safe working environment but workers are responsible for their actions. If they choose to abuse substances, they are putting themselves and others at risk. Management should aim to get workers to buy-in to zero tolerance policies aimed at reducing the risk of injuries resulting from substance abuse. There needs to be a strong element of self-policing among a workforce since one individual’s actions can put the larger group at risk.

4) Training –

Workers are the ones on the frontline and the ones most likely to be put in danger if an individual is abusing drugs or alcohol. All workers – not just managers – should be trained to identify symptoms of substance abuse, especially since someone may be able to hide signs of abuse from a manager but might find it far harder to hide from his/her fellow workers. The dangers of drug and alcohol abuse should be a substantial part of orientations in the mining industry, with the company’s policy on drug and alcohol use (including an employee drug testing policy) clearly outlined and workers made aware of their role in enforcing the company policy and their overall importance in creating a safe, drug and alcohol free workplace.


Substance abuse in the workplace is too important an issue in mining to be ignored, with consequences ranging from reduced productivity to serious injuries resulting from carelessness and risk taking. Employers have a duty of care to their workers and should aim to create a safe working environment, free from alcohol and drug abuse in the workplace. Achieving this means investing time and money to include information on substance abuse in training and orientations so workers have the knowledge required to identify individuals who may be a danger to themselves and others.

A zero tolerance policy regarding workplace substance abuse requires an employee drug testing policy to ensure your workforce is safe to perform their duties. Implementing a zero tolerance policy requires buy-in from workers who need to be active participants in creating a safe working environment. The reasons why individuals abuse substances are varied and complicated but their impact in the workplace are clear and universally negative. The responsibility of an employer is just as clear: to create a safe working environment, free from serious hazards for all mining workers.

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Jenny Snook

Jenny Snook is content executive at GoContractor with the job of researching the latest health and safety trends in the heavy industry. Her past-experience includes the research of large museum collections such as the Louth County Museum, many from the industrial age.

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