Wider problem looms in Aussie shearing sheds

National taskforce attempts to combat industry drug and alcohol misuse


Hilton Barrett, Help’em Shearing, Wellington, believes the recently formed national taskforce attempting to address drug and alcohol use in shearing sheds should be focusing on wider industry problems.

Hilton Barrett, Help’em Shearing, Wellington, believes the recently formed national taskforce attempting to address drug and alcohol use in shearing sheds should be focusing on wider industry problems.

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Cracking down on the use of drugs and alcohol in the shearing shed is only one aspect of a wider problem which is tainting one of Australia’s oldest industry’s, says a Wellington contractor.

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Cracking down on the misuse of drugs and alcohol in the shearing shed is only one aspect of the problem   tainting one of Australia’s oldest industry’s, says a Wellington contractor.

Taking the behaviour of employees into his own hands four years ago, Hilton Barrett, Help’em Shearing, Wellington, introduced his own workplace policy, outlining strict conditions of zero tolerance to drug and alcohol use, and evening curfews in an attempt to address the growing behaviour problem. 

Potential employees are required fill out an employment package which includes a drug and alcohol policy and if they do not agree to the terms and conditions, or adhere to drug and alcohol tests at the local pathology centre if requested, they are not hired or let go. 

“Ninety per cent of potential employees who call, don’t call back after reading the policy – but what started the policy was my biggest fear of drug and alcohol affected workers behaviour and their temper,” Mr Barrett said.

“I put together a team of 22 people once and in the first week I sacked 13 of them for not adhering to the 10pm curfew when I pay for accommodation and drinking all night –  it’s not just the drugs, the alcohol is continuing problem without a doubt,” he said.

Mr Barrett believes the recently formed national taskforce headed by the Australian Workers Union to tackle the drug and alcohol problem within the industry, are too focused on drug abuse instead of other problems which have been brought to their attention.

He said he is confident a compulsory drug and alcohol policy won’t be implemented by the taskforce and even if it was, “the industry itself needs to be up to scratch before we worry about the drugs.”

“Some of the conditions we have to work in are far worse than the drug and alcohol abuse, the fact that there are sheds with no running water and no flushing toilet is having more of an effect on the industry at the moment - it’s just appalling.”

Mr Barrett believes shearing industry policies also need to be reworked because of the challenges the current times present and to remove the blame on producers and contractors for an individuals behavior.

“Workers compensation is a big issue, shearers are still entitled to it even if they injure themselves while affected by drugs or alcohol  – these issues need to be looked at before wasting resources on a taskforce just to combat drugs,” Mr Barrett said. “It’s a good industry – I have been in it my whole life, it’s a shame to see it in the state it is.” 

A proactive not a reactive approach to substance abuse problems in the shearing industry is being put forward by The Australian Shearing Contractors Association’s Jason Letchford, member of the recently formed taskforce of industry bodies to address the misuse of drugs and alcohol in shearing sheds across Australia.

Mr Letchford believes the development of guidelines and educational material will help look toward an industry outcome of zero harm to people and animals. 

He said although drug abuse incidents are not wide spread, the severity of those with reactive behaviour while on drugs is a concern for those working with them and when combined with an isolated environment the shearing industry presents, educational tools for this aspect of the problem are needed. 

“We need to supply a go-to tool so everyone can have access to practical steps in an emergency situation where a worker is drug or alcohol affected – the taskforce is trying to achieve training outcomes and prevention through this education - that’s our first stop in taking action with this.”  

“We are targeting it at a training level, we need to identify the best educational solutions and get it into the the training programs before employees even get into the shearing shed.”

Mr Letchford also stated that any changes to employee award policies to possibly help combat the problem would be a significant change which is not needed, given it’s the oldest award in Australia and has achieved what has been needed in the past. 

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