Just how much of a threat to mine safety is the misuse of alcohol and drugs? Accurate figures are difficult to come by but the problem is considerable, says Rhys Evans, MD at ALCO-Safe, who notes that the cost to industry generally has been estimated at R2 billion per year. “The prevalence of substance abuse is thought to be much higher in mining than in most other sectors of the economy, so clearly the industry faces a significant challenge,” he states.

Substance abuse poses major problems for mining sector

The Lion AlcoBlow is a state-of-the-art high speed testing breathalyser.

A study by the Mine Health and Safety Council (MHSC) of South Africa which Evans quotes tested approximately 2 000 miners across seven mines for substance abuse. It indicated that of the almost 50 % of workers who used alcohol, just over 15 % showed alcohol dependence. The study also revealed that the prevalence of cannabis (marijuana) use varied from 4,6 % to 21,5 % across the mines, with the mean being 9,1 %.

“These are very worrying figures,” says Evans. “Employees suffering from substance abuse can suffer a range of problems, including a loss of perception and motor skills and – sometimes – irrational and unpredictable behaviour. Clearly, they should not be allowed in any work environment, least of all a mine, and, indeed, the law is very clear on this point – the Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) Act, for example, specifies a zero tolerance approach towards alcohol and drug use in the workplace.”

While Evans acknowledges that tackling the substance abuse problem requires a holistic approach from mines, he also argues that the ‘first line of defence’ must be the use of breathalysers and random drug testing. As he points out, the priority is to prevent people suffering from the effects of drugs and alcohol gaining access to the workplace. “This is not enough in itself and measures of this type must be backed up by educational and awareness programmes, rehabilitation programmes and a host of other interventions. But testing for abuse is the starting point on which everything else depends.”

Formed 44 years ago and based in Tshwane, ALCO-Safe is one of the leading companies in its field. It is the sole distributor in South Africa (and some neighbouring states) for the Lion Laboratories range of breathalysers for alcohol detection and also represents Alere Toxicology, whose products include drug testing equipment. Lion is based in Wales in the UK while Alere is a US-headquartered company.

Says Evans: “Both Lion and Alere are global leaders and their products are well-established and totally proven. Both also have extensive R&D programmes to ensure that their product lines keep abreast of modern technology. In the case of Alere, it has two world-class laboratories and its products are used to undertake over 10 million tests a year in around 75 countries.”

Forming the backbone of the Lion range is the AlcoBlow Rapid Test, a significant advancement on the original – and, with its yellow casing, iconic – AlcoBlow. “The AlcoBlow Rapid Test breathalyser is our biggest seller and is perfect for high-volume testing scenarios which are typically found on mines, when hundreds of workers might be coming on duty at the beginning of their shifts,” says Evans.

“The rapid test requires only a fraction of the amount of air previously needed to accurately give an indication of the presence of alcohol in the bloodstream, which means that it samples first time, every time. It also features software changes that have dramatically improved battery life – in fact, 5 000 tests can easily be achieved on one set of batteries.”

Another new development is the Alcontrol breathalyser for voluntary alcohol testing. It is a wall-mounted device which is based on the AlcoBlow Rapid Test and offers employees – whether of a mine or any other organisation – the opportunity to self-test their alcohol levels. Currently, users activate the device via either a card or fingerprint recognition. Based on the results of the breath test, entry to the workspace – typically through a turnstile – is either allowed or denied. The whole process is automated and does not require the presence of a third party, such as a security guard.

Interestingly, Alcontrol has been designed and developed locally by ALCO-Safe, which is also working on facial recognition software to go with the product.

“Mines face the risk of depleted workforces when uncontrolled voluntary testing is introduced. The problem is that alcohol abusers tend to take advantage of the system and use their right to voluntary testing as an excuse to justify absenteeism due to positive test results,” says Evans. “For this reason, mines need to couple the voluntary test programme with a policy which restricts the number of allowable positive tests. A camera option is available with the product which ensures that workers do not abuse the system by getting co-workers to test for them.”

While breathalysers account for the major part of ALCO-Safe’s business, the Alere drug-testing products – which analyse either saliva or urine – have carved out a healthy share of the local market since being introduced in 2009. The range of solutions on offer includes single strip drug tests which test for one specific drug type, multiple panel drug tests which test for six or 10 different drugs in one test and drug testing cups which test for six or 10 different drugs in one cup. Disposable saliva tests are available to test for six different drug types in one test.

The Alere DDS2 is the flagship drug-testing instrument. Using a saliva sample, it gives results for six different drug types. It displays the results on a screen and provides a printout, all within five minutes.

Evans notes that the recent Constitutional Court ruling that marijuana can be used in ‘private spaces’ has had an influence on how mines test for use of the drug. As he points out, traditional urine tests are highly accurate at detecting marijuana use but cannot pinpoint the specific time of use, as the active compound in marijuana – THC – can linger in a person’s system for weeks, or even months.

“The dilemma for employers is that with private use of marijuana now legalised, they need to prove that the user is under the influence of the drug when he arrives at work before they can institute disciplinary procedures. Merely testing for consumption is no longer sufficient. Fortunately, we have a saliva test that solves this problem as it only shows a positive result for THC about six hours post-use. The test is becoming extremely popular with mine owners and with many other organisations.”

Evans stresses that tests using ALCO-Safe’s products will stand up in disciplinary and CCMA cases, provided they are supported by valid substance abuse policies as well as legally acceptable testing procedures. “If employers are not clear on these issues, we can assist with the development of substance abuse policies and control programmes and with any training that might be required,” he concludes.

Photos courtesy of ALCO-Safe

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Arthur Tassell
Email: mining@crown.co.za
Phone: +27 11 622-4770
Fax: +27 11 615-6108

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Bennie Venter
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Phone: +27 11 622-4770
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Crown Publications, one of South Africa’s largest business-to-business publishing houses, came into existence in 1986. Since then, the company has grown from producing a single magazine, Electricity SA (renamed Electricity+Control), to publishing six monthly magazines, three quarterlies, and a number of engineering handbooks.