Alcohol and drug use amongst fishing and farming workers

This study collected qualitative and quantitative data to describe farm and fishing workers’ use of drugs and alcohol, their understanding of drug and alcohol related harms and the influence of workplace culture on drug and alcohol use.

The research was conducted by a team from The Lyndon Community, Monash University, The University of Queensland and Charles Sturt University. It was funded by the Collaborative Partnership for Farming and Fishing Health and Safety from the Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation.

Farm and fishing workers/contractors, partners of workers and community leaders (n=145) across six research sites completed interviews and/or surveys between November 2010 and May 2011. The age range of participants was 18 to 75 years with an average of 41 years. A narrative approach was used to analyse qualitative interviews. A narrative analysis highlights the stories participants tell about the study topic and was used to identify social practices and behavioural norms in relation to substance use.

Alcohol was used at levels that would pose moderate to high risk or dependent levels by approximately 44 per cent of the study participants. This value is considerably higher than that of the general Australian population where 16 per cent of rural dwellers are deemed to be moderate to high risk drinkers (Australian Bureau of Statistics [ABS] 2006).

Younger participants typically reported binge drinking (10 or more drinks once or twice a week) at social gatherings whereas older participants reported drinking large amounts (5-8 drinks) regularly, often daily, at home. Women consumed alcohol at high risk levels as frequently as men.

The proportion of participants that reported using illicit drugs was considerably lower than the 44% reporting at risk alcohol use. The largest percentage of participants reported using cannabis (13.7%) followed by amphetamines (9%). Twenty per cent of participants reported working under the influence of illicit drugs during the previous 12 months.

Employers were accepting of high alcohol and drug use among certain subgroups, such as deckhands, shearers and truck drivers, on the grounds of these subgroups’ stereotypical substance-using culture. Some employers ignored drug and alcohol use by employees because of labour shortages, particularly during the harvest season.

Problematic substance use, especially alcohol, goes to the heart of industry productivity even though most people do not connect out-of-work substance use with workplace health and safety. Challenges include tailoring interventions to fit with the industry context and workplace practices. Employers may need advice and support to directly address employees’ substance use, particularly alcohol, and to develop workplace practices that discourage use. Farm and fishing workers need ready access to information and support to reduce harmful substance use.

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