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Substance abuse top health and safety risk in sawmills

Both workers, managers worry about dangers of alcohol and drug use
Drugs and alcohol use a top concern at sawmills in Ontario REUTERS/Andy Clark

A group of sawmill industry experts in Ontario has identified being under the influence of drugs and alcohol as the number 1 workplace concern. This includes not just alcohol and recreational drugs but also prescription drugs, such as pain medication.

Employees taking shortcuts on the job and not properly locking out or guarding equipment rounded out the top three concerns as identified by 15 industry representatives from management, labour, government and not-for-profit organizations.

In June, the individuals participated in a workshop organized by Workplace Safety North in North Bay, Ont. to identify, review and discuss nearly 90 risks present within sawmills.

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?’” said Sujoy Dey, corporate risk officer at the Ministry of Labour and the workshop facilitator. “And both workers and managers agreed: the number one risk in sawmills is substance abuse.”

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, said Workplace Safety North.

“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,” the association said in a news release.

Three of the top 10 risks involve psychosocial or mental health issues: substance use, lack of focus and stress. Employers need to take a holistic approach to health and safety and foster a supportive culture that promotes the well-being of employees.

The results of the workshop were reviewed by the Ontario volunteer industry advisory committee for forestry, paper, printing and converting sectors. The committee, in conjunction with Workplace Safety North, is supportive of the next step: a detailed analysis of the root causes of substance abuse in the workplace and the creation of an effective prevention plan. 

Top 10 health and safety risks in sawmills 

1.    Substance Abuse: Under the influence of drugs and alcohol in the workplace

2.   Training issues: Employees taking shortcuts

3.   Lock out: 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. Machine lock out and guarding: Caught in or crushed by mobile equipment

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