Or rather, Vaughan Burnand went along to find out why so many in the industry are seeking help with drink and drug addictions. Mark Leftly found out what he learned.

There are 20 beds set aside for patients undergoing rehabilitation for drug and alcohol addiction at The Priory, the private clinic in south-west London. The minimum 28-day residence here costs £18,000, so the clientele is fairly exclusive: guests have included Rolling Stones guitarist Ronnie Wood, supermodel Kate Moss and footballer Paul Gascoigne. And astonishingly, at any given time at least one of those 20 beds is almost always occupied by someone from the construction industry.

Mike McPhillips (left) and Vaughan Burnand discuss construction’s weakness for chemical abuse
Credit: Tim Foster
Mike McPhillips (left) and Vaughan Burnand discuss construction’s weakness for chemical abuse

Alcoholism and drug abuse is a worsening problem for the UK workforce. It is estimated that 17 million working days a year are lost to excessive drinking and that 40% of employees under the age of 40 have experimented with illicit drugs. There is anecdotal evidence to suggest that construction is developing a problem: in June workers were thrown off the £2bn King’s Cross regeneration scheme and the £3.75bn Heathrow Terminal 5 project after failing random alcohol tests, and in April it emerged that random tests on T5 workers showed that 6% consistently tested positive for alcohol, cannabis or cocaine. Also, a tabloid alleged that “dozens” of workers at the Wembley stadium site were using cannabis or cocaine. It may be that construction’s problems are no greater than that of other industries, and they certainly reflect wider social trends, but the consequences of workers being drunk or befuddled in an environment filled with swinging girders and reversing dumper trucks are far graver than those resulting from a few executives attending board meetings while drunk, stoned or abnormally talkative.

To discuss the issue, Building took Vaughan Burnand to The Priory. The chairman of the Major Contractor Group’s health and safety committee, and chief executive of £400m-turnover contractor Shepherd Construction, was there to talk to Mike McPhillips, the doctor who runs the hospital’s addiction programme.

McPhillips knows all about construction. His dad used to be a bricklayer, and started his career working on power stations. His father-in-law, Gordon Marr, lives in Australia, where he runs a third-generation mobile and tower crane hiring company, Marr Contracting. “He’s coming over to the UK shortly, and his idea of a good time will be to take me off to a building site in London and look at some big cranes,” he jokes.

Burnand, for his part, relates that there has been “plenty of alcohol” in his family, but not drugs. “The culture of people who were born during one war and lived through the second was totally different – my father and his twin brother would probably be categorised as alcoholics today, but it was perceived as totally normal in society then.” Society has changed, and this kind of behaviour is no longer acceptable. Contractor Laing O’Rourke, for example, has introduced random drug testing and Burnand says that being drunk at work results in summary dismissal at Shepherd.

Burnand has also instituted occupational health screenings. In Shepherd’s Darlington office, management called a meeting to outline the policy to workers, two of whom volunteered the information that they had illegal substances in their systems. “The funny thing is,” Burnand laughs, “the two guys that stuck their hands up thought that drug and alcohol testing was a standard part of our occupational health screening, but it isn’t.”

At any given time at least one of The Priory’s 20 £18,000 beds is occupied by someone from the construction industry

The two workers weren’t sacked, and Burnand admits that he doesn’t know how to deal with these kind of findings, although he is now keen to incorporate alcohol and drug testing into the screenings. McPhillips agrees that testing is a good idea, and he doesn’t believe that positive tests should automatically mean dismissal; unsurprisingly, he argues that rehabilitation is the best option.

The Priory
Credit: Tim Foster

One other possibility is to stop the problem at source by testing as part of the recruitment process, yet this brings its own problems. Hair and urine tests cost only about £100 each, but Burnand and McPhillips agree that it may be unfair to bar somebody from employment if they test positive – unlike alcohol, the presence of drugs in someone’s system does not necessarily mean that they are still under the influence of those substances.

Another possibility is random testing on site. This is also difficult. Managers will have to insist that employees submit to tests, and in the macho environment of a building site, people can respond badly if pushed. “The employee doesn’t want to stand in front of someone watching them pee,” says McPhillips.

Despite the difficulties, contractors are in danger if they don’t act. In an increasingly litigious society, if a company fails to tackle suspected alcohol and drug use and it results in an accident to a third party, they could be sued for negligence by the victim or their family. “You’re a big soft target,” says McPhillips, pointing to Burnand.

Burnand knows this, and has introduced CCTV cameras on site that react to movement. So, if a group of workers start surrounding an unusual area, the camera moves to pick this up. This is becoming important as drug dealing on site is another worrying trend. The generation of hard drinking Irish labourers who used to man Britain’s sites has more or less retired, to be replaced by migrants from eastern Europe, who are far younger and more interested in designer drugs such as ecstasy and amphetamines. The British construction worker can be little different; they earn a good salary in an industry drained of labour, and can afford to blow £150 on a night out, or £50-60 on a gram of cocaine.

But McPhillips has good news for Burnand, too. He explains that every industry in every country in the world that has introduced random urine testing has caught a large number of addicts in its first year, but then seen the figure fall away quickly: “The employees quickly get the idea that if there’s a urine testing programme in the industry, they had better be bloody careful. Once introduced, testing changes people’s behaviour, so the testing itself is preventative.”

British construction workers earn a good salary in an industry drained of labour, and can afford to blow £150 on a night out, or £60 on a gram of cocaine

Perhaps, but contractors still have the problem of identifying potentially addicted workers. The Priory is statutorily obliged to tell employers if anybody checks in who drives public transport, but not so with construction workers who are operating vehicles on site: “We’ve had guys come through here employed by the construction industry,” groans McPhillips, “earning bloody good money, able to pay for a detox in The Priory, and then they wave us goodbye and say that they’re off to operate an earth-moving device and we’re like, ‘well, you’re not even entitled to drive your car.’”

Construction workers, be they on-site staff or executives, are treated at The Priory, primarily for alcohol abuse. Architects are more evenly divided between alcoholism and cocaine use, and always cite stress as their reason for addiction. McPhillips says: “We’re always looking after architects. And they always say either that ‘people do not understand me and rubbish my designs’ or ‘I’m a great architect but a lousy business manager’. They’re not usually very happy people.”

Credit: Tim Foster

Burnand, a deadpan and straight-talking northerner, relishes the opportunity to joke about this profession: “Some of them believe that they are living a rock-star lifestyle.”

But then he gets more serious: “The reason why they have problems with substance abuse is that they don’t earn enough money,” which is the opposite of the situation with contractors. You can get an architect for 25 grand a year.”

McPhillips reacts instantly: “Yes! They live in a permanent condition of debt. Every architect I’ve ever seen has money worries.” Little wonder, given that they have just handed him a cheque for at least £18,000.

To an extent, it has seemed that the two have largely discussed problems rather than hit on many real solutions, but their conversation reaches an interesting conclusion. McPhillips discloses that he is about to put forward a motion at The Priory management board’s next meeting that doctors and nurses working there should subject themselves to drug and alcohol testing. He has perhaps become suspicious of everyone, given that he is about to sack his three-year-old daughter’s au pair for coming in from clubs at five in the morning, three hours before she is supposed to be in charge of the infant. “I wouldn’t have a problem pissing in a pot once a year,” he says.

“Neither would I,” replies Burnand, adding that he is going to put the same proposal to his board next week. Ultimately, then, both have agreed to set examples to their workforces, as the endless war against substance abuse in the construction industry begins another battle.