Managing substance abuse offshore

Substance abuse is a serious issue on oil and gas rigs. Iqarus’ Dr David Johnston tells Abi Millar about the risks to operations and crew, and what can be done to stamp out the problem.


Occupational health is clearly a major concern on oil and gas rigs. Not only must workers grapple with challenging environmental conditions (including loud noise, extremes of temperature and ergonomic hazards), but they must do so when depleted by long working hours and extended stretches away from friends and family.

The onus is on employers, then, to implement rigorous health and safety programmes and manage welfare in the workplace. Among other things, this involves taking a zero tolerance approach to drugs and alcohol. In such a dangerous industry, workers need to be top of their game. If their clarity of mind or reaction times are compromised, the consequences could be calamitous.

“The impact that drug use brings can be significant offshore,” says Dr David Johnston, senior occupational physician at Iqarus. “Not only are individuals a hazard to themselves but, in some cases, the installation itself could be at significant danger.”

An ongoing concern

In February, Johnston spoke on the subject of substance misuse at an Energy Institute meeting in Aberdeen. His presentation, which focused on how drugs and alcohol affect the workforce, drew from Iqarus’ extensive experience in offshore healthcare.

As a global provider of healthcare for demanding and complex operating environments, Iqarus has worked with North Sea oil rigs for 40 years. The company tries to ensure workforces are healthy, productive and safe, even when they are isolated from medical care. In this context, substance misuse issues are an ongoing area of concern.

“Outside of the hazardous risks associated with drug use, there are commercial issues,” points out Johnston. “Companies are likely to see increased illness and sickness absence, as well as a significant reduction in productivity”.

What’s more, if a worker takes drugs, the effects may persist long past the point they think they’re under the influence. One study found that pilots who had smoked cannabis still showed impairments in performance 24 hours later, despite feeling fine.

The scale of the problem

Unfortunately, drug and alcohol abuse is not always a problem that’s easy to eradicate. While there are no verified statistics, testing suggests that substance misuse offshore is as prevalent as it is onshore.

“In 2015/16, a Crime Survey for England and Wales revealed that around one in twelve adults aged 16 to 59 have taken a recreational drug in the last year,” says Johnston. “In the last year, we have carried out onshore and offshore testing which has found numbers consistent with this.”

Few companies are likely to be forthcoming about failed drug tests, given that it would reflect badly on their own safety procedures. That said, recent years have seen various well-publicised incidents. In 2014, a major investigation was launched when a suspicious powder was found on the Piper Bravo platform (it was later found to be painkillers); and last April two workers were removed from BP’s ETAP project after the discovery of a syringe.

In the course of Iqarus’ own work, a number of similar misdemeanors have come to light. The company has found that cannabis, cocaine and amphetamines are the substances most likely to be misused.

“Clearly patient confidentiality must be respected, but we have seen examples where an offshore worker has concealed controlled drugs in a large container of protein and high fibre meal replacement,” says Johnston. “This was picked up by heliport security when the container was scanned prior to departure. We have also been asked to mobilise our drug collection officers offshore to drug test everyone on the installation because suspicious powders or potential drug paraphernalia have been found.”

He believes that workers’ reasons for misusing substances are really no different to the rest of society: a gamut of individual and environmental factors, compounded by the availability of drugs and peer influences. 

“Other factors which may be specific to offshore workers include higher levels of disposable income, work patterns and high levels of stress,” Johnston adds. “It is important to stress that whilst the issues facing those offshore are often no different to general society, the impacts can be disastrous.”

Stamping it out

So what can offshore oil and gas rigs do to address the situation? The first step is drug and alcohol testing, which Johnston describes as a “very useful method to help motivate drug and alcohol avoidance”. It is typically undertaken at three stages: before employment, at random intervals, and whenever there is good reason to suspect an employee is not sober.  

“It is really important that drug testing is undertaken by appropriately trained individuals. Results must be analysed at an accredited laboratory to give those involved confidence in the testing process,” says Johnston.

Beyond that, companies need to make sure they have a clear and concise substance abuse policy in place. This should set out clear guidelines on substance abuse in the workplace, as well as encouraging those with drug or alcohol-related problems to seek support.

“In addition, progressive companies should consider developing programmes which assist managers dealing with drug or alcohol related incidents, whilst ensuring that appropriate controls are in place for testing,” says Johnston.

A truly in-depth programme, of course, will go beyond just laying down the law. Johnston feels that, outside of ensuring management teams have a robust substance abuse policy in place, it is crucial to undertake workforce prevention programmes.

“These health promotion campaigns can provide information to management and employees on substance abuse and offer them a means of seeking help,” he says.
Programmes of this kind may help tackle the roots of substance misuse before it becomes a problem. In a 2012 pilot study by Sodexo, 30% of UK offshore workers surveyed professed to be dissatisfied with their material and physical wellbeing, while 25% reported drinking more alcohol than the recommended weekly limits (during the stints they were not on the rig).

Clearly, companies need to think about drugs and alcohol in the context of their workers’ overall wellbeing. That said, this is one issue on which a softly-softly approach is not advised. Substance misuse offshore is an extremely serious issue, and for the operations that stand to be affected, savvy management strategies are essential.