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Dr. Adams Article

November 27, 2012

How Saturday’s splurge affects Tuesday’s safety

Addictions specialist Dr. Brendan Adams talks about the lasting effects of alcohol and drug use and their impacts on workplace safety


CALGARY, ALBERTA – When Dr. Brendan Adams speaks to corporate groups about the dangers of using alcohol and drugs in the workplace, he makes a point of asking the members of his audience what they really care about.


“Is it your job? Maybe, but not that much,” says Adams, an addictions specialist. “If you have a spouse and children, you think about that. If you die, and they’re deprived of you, that’s the worst thing you can possibly imagine. And allowing intoxicants or impairment, on whatever level, to exist in you or your co-worker, is a darn good way of ensuring that you don’t go home at the end of the day.”


An aviation physician with an expertise in the use of alcohol and drugs among pilots, Adams says surveys reveal that the construction industry has the highest per capita use, or misuse, of drugs and alcohol, and the highest risk of workers being impaired on the job.


“It’s quite funny because I’ll stand in front of a roomful of people who are operating dynamite and 400 ton mine trucks and I’ll talk about impaired airline pilots and they’ll all act scared. I’ll say ‘Jeez, what you guys are doing is a lot scarier than flying an airplane.’”


The true meaning of impairment


Society misconstrues the meaning of the word impairment, Adams says, because we equate impairment with the legal definition we so often hear about on the news – a blood alcohol level of .08. That has nothing to do with the medical definition of the term impairment, he explains. “So somebody shows up at work on marijuana, for instance. He isn’t slurring his speech, isn’t weaving, doesn’t have the fine motor and gross motor impairment that you see with alcohol, so we say ‘He’s fine!’ because he’s not matching our prejudiced blueprint of what impairment looks like.”


Meanwhile, Adams continues, acute cocaine intoxication lasts between two and four hours, with the actual high only lasting about 15 minutes. When a person uses cocaine regularly, however, the drug drains the dopamine supply from his or her brain. “What that results in, clinically, if you were to interview someone who was coming off cocaine binging, is somebody who is tired, fatigued, unable to concentrate, cold, and unable to think clearly, because their brain is grossly deficient in dopamine. You can take pictures of it – you can take fMRIS, which are Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging Scans. You can actually show that the brain of someone who is coming off cocaine dependency looks terribly different than your brain -- but he’s not intoxicated.”


Adams says there’s plenty of evidence that alcohol and drugs impair performance for much longer than they appear to do on the surface.


Risks persist, even with workers in recovery


“A worker who goes to work in the recovery phase – in the first 30 to 45 days after he stops using cocaine – is not going to be able to think clearly, he’s going to be depressed, he’s going to be preoccupied with getting more drug or using, or trying not to use,” says Adams. “He’s not safe to be in a safety critical job. But he’s not intoxicated, and if you pee-test him, he’ll pee-test negative. So you can start to see that this is a lot more complicated (than whether a worker is intoxicated or not on the job). When you get to the world of amphetamine, it can take upwards of 90 days to 180 days for your brain neurochemistry to return to baseline.”


Meanwhile, regular marijuana use affects the hippocampus, the memory area of the brain. “And so somebody who’s on dope is nodding, smiling, making all the right comments, doesn’t appear impaired when you’re talking to him, and you’re doing a safety briefing, and explaining what you mustn’t do at this job-site, what’s dangerous, what’s not, and then Buddy goes out and gets into a horrible accident, because he doesn’t remember what you told him. That’s marijuana impairment,” says Adams. “Was he staggering? No. Was he slurring his speech? No. Did he remember where the power lines were? No. So he swung his crane boom around, electrified the crane and killed two people. And he’s arguing ‘Look, I smoke a doobie on Friday, I’m back at work on Monday, it’s none of your damn business.’”


Nonsense, says Adams. Workplace safety is crucial, and, though random drug testing won’t detect every level of impairment, it functions well as part of a broader plan that involves education, detection, prevention and, where appropriate, treatment.


“I believe that intelligent people, given intelligent sets of data, make intelligent decisions,” says Adams. “In my talks, I try to challenge people to take a much broader view of impairment. My catchphrase is ‘It’s about dead and injured workers!’ That’s what we care about. That’s where the rubber meets the road.”


Dr. Brendan Adams is an expert in drug and alcohol toxicology who works with the airline industry and has served as a consultant to the Canadian construction and energy sectors in the development of workplace alcohol and drug policies.





Alberta’s Drug and Alcohol Risk Reduction Project (DARRPP) is a two-year initiative launched on June 20, 2012 to evaluate and report on the effectiveness of comprehensive workplace alcohol and drug programs that will include random workplace testing. DARRPP is led by a multi-stakeholder working group that includes major oil sands industry employers and labour providers. Working from a shared model, participating employers will introduce and monitor random workplace testing programs for safety-sensitive positions and share statistics related to their implementation. For more information about DARRPP, please visit www.darrpp.ca.

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