Substance abuse tops H&S risks in sawmills

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Like a wisp of smoke, a waft of alcohol, or a tiny pill, it’s difficult to measure the exact size of the problem of substance abuse in the workplace, but a group of sawmill industry experts in Canada has placed the issue firmly at the top of their safety agenda. This issue being faced in this region is not too dissimilar to the issues being faced here by local mills.

Last June 2017, a volunteer group of subject matter experts met face-to-face for a sawmill workplace risk assessment at Workplace Safety North (WSN) headquarters in North Bay, Ontario. The group of 15 representatives from management, labour, government, and not-for-profit organizations, was facilitated by Sujoy Dey, Ph.D., Corporate Risk Officer at the Ministry of Labour (MOL).

In advance of the workshop, each industry expert submitted their top health and safety concerns, and during the one-day workshop, all 80 identified risks were reviewed and discussed by the group.

When it came time for the final vote on the top risks, only actual workers and managers in the sawmill industry were allowed to vote. In order to ensure an open and fair voting process, handheld electronic devices recorded votes anonymously. Both labour and management agreed: the top danger sawmill workers face is substance abuse.

“As they identified specific conditions and situations that could result in injury or illness, we asked the group, ‘What keeps you up at night?’” says Dr. Dey, “And both workers and managers agreed: the number one risk in sawmills is substance abuse.” Dey notes the category includes not just alcohol and recreational drugs, but also prescription drugs, such as pain medication.

Top 10 health and safety risks in sawmills

  1. Substance Abuse: Under the influence of drugs and alcohol in the workplace
  2. Training: Employees taking shortcuts
  3. Not properly locking out or guarding equipment
  4. Age: Inexperience of new, young workers who don’t see the dangers
  5. Psychosocial: Lack of focus, distraction of worker while performing duties
  6. Slips, trips, and falls
  7. Occupational disease: Loss of hearing, ringing in the ears
  8. Psychosocial: Stress, including job and family pressures
  9. Working from heights: Absence of engineered anchor points
  10. Caught in or crushed by mobile equipment

Being under the influence of alcohol or drugs – prescription or not – is a longstanding safety concern in the workplace, and it’s a difficult thing to measure (unlike, for example, Workplace Safety and Insurance Board statistics on slips, trips, and falls in the workplace). Even though there are issues regarding social stigma, privacy, and human rights concerns, drug and alcohol use in the workplace is an issue that’s too risky to ignore any longer.

Three of the top 10 risks involve psychosocial or mental health issues: substance use, lack of focus, and stress. As more workplaces gain a better understanding about the importance of taking a holistic approach to health and safety and having a supportive workplace culture that encourages both self-care and concern for co-workers, research also supports an increased focus on overall well-being.


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