To all the dangers present on a construction site you can now add accidents caused by cannabis, ecstasy, amphetamines and cocaine
In March the site manager on Mace's £250m SmithKline Beecham headquarters in Brentford received anonymous phone calls warning him that drugs were being dealt on his site.

He decided that the only thing to do was to contact the police. Uniformed officers came to the site and warned members of the 2000-strong workforce that they were to be monitored and that undercover police officers would be trying to catch the dealers. Police and local anti-drugs campaigners came to give advice to site workers about drugs and, together with Mace, make them aware of how dangerous drug use can be on a building site.

Mace's health and safety director John Hanley said the only way to deal with the problem was to introduce the right kind of deterrents so news of the clampdown would get around and bring any problems into the open. It is, he says, totally unacceptable that anyone high on substances should put fellow workers' lives at risk.

This swift, head-on response to the allegations of drug abuse is exemplary. But anecdotal evidence is emerging that on sites across the country, drug use goes unchecked. Just how far this culture is pervading the industry is hard to ascertain. There has been no research and, so far, no statistics from the Health and Safety Executive to link drug use to accidents. Most construction firms remain ignorant of the scale of the problem. But those who have observed the culture at first hand believe it must be tackled.

One advocate of the need for bringing the issue to light is Alan Ritchie, a representative of UCATT in Glasgow. He says: "When you think we have an ageing workforce that is going to be replaced by young people who could bring in a new drug culture, the industry will need to look at what measures need to be adopted to tackle [drugs]." The Construction Industry Training Board plans to recruit 70,000 young workers a year into the industry.

Ritchie has recently been involved in the case of a UCATT member who alleged that drug abuse was taking place among construction workers on the £78m Millennium Wheel site in Falkirk, Scotland.

Barry McDonald, a labourer on the project, claimed he had seen them under the influence of cannabis and other substances. He says he even saw site workers heat up hashish in the canteen microwave before cutting it up and distributing it.

I have recommended to lads whose pupils are still bulging from the night before that they go home

Trainee civil engineer

Morrison Construction, the contractor on the site, launched an immediate investigation. A spokesman said that a large number of man hours had been spent investigating the claims, but that had uncovered no evidence to substantiate them.

"It must be remembered that the allegations are referring to probably only a couple or a handful of people from a site of 800 workers. Things needs to be kept in perspective," the spokesman said. However, Morrison, in a similarly laudable move to Mace's, said it had asked the police to run drugs awareness seminars with its senior managers.

However, McDonald has since left the site, claiming intimidation from his colleagues. "Drugs are a big problem on building sites and people are making a real lot of money from dealing them," he says.

More anecdotal evidence is provided by a graduate trainee civil engineer, who did not want to be named. He leads and co-ordinates many young labourers on sites around London, and he says he has had many encounters with illegal substances on site.

Saturday mornings are the worst, he says, because the most of his team have been out on Friday night and are still high on ecstasy, amphetamines and cocaine.

"I have recommended to lads whose pupils are still bulging from the night before that they go home because they are just not safe enough to operate machinery," he says.

You often get lads who are on something on site. They think they are Superman and try to jump from high places or lift a crane. They are the most dangerous

Graduate trainee civil engineer, London

The engineer says his biggest cause for concern is that when workers are still high from the night before, they have increased energy and sometimes try to achieve tasks they just cannot manage on their own. He adds: "You often get lads who are on something on site, whether it's speed or some kind of pill taken to get them through the day. The problem is they often think they are Superman and try to jump from high places or lift a crane. They are the most dangerous."

Cannabis smoking is also rife – but this causes an entirely different set of problems, the engineer claims. "The smoking is not good for any site because it makes workers lethargic and their production levels go down," he says. "They also become not very alert to any dangerous machinery that may be around them."

He claims that the smoking of cannabis is endemic on work sites, that it is an accepted part of the working day.

A labourer from a site in central London, who also wishes to remain anonymous, claims that he, too, knows of drug dealing on sites. He believes it is something site managers are aware of and sometimes even subscribe to to maintain the workers' morale.

He says: "There is one particular site in London where a lad has been dealing drugs for months. It's not really done underhand; everybody knows he's the man to contact to score drugs, and he knows he has a large marketplace to make money."

On-site drug abuse hit the national headlines in November 1999 when ecstasy and cannabis were reportedly being dealt during construction of the Millennium Dome. Employees of privately owned Northern Ireland-based firm Mivan were accused of dealing and taking drugs while working on two of the 14 zones.

Charlie Hutchinson, Mivan's health and safety manager, says: "In our case the police didn't want to know because the claims couldn't be substantiated, but at the end of the day the contractor is liable and responsible for their employees."

Hutchinson believes it is unfair that contractors are responsible for employees without having sufficient powers to control and police them. He has visited Florida where drugs were eliminated from sites by random testing.

He says: "In the USA, drugs in the workplace are not tolerated. If we are to be responsible for employees, we too need some kind of powers to monitor workers, but here human rights legislation limits us from doing so."

Construction's record compares badly with other industries, such as the oil and gas industries, where stringent measures have been used to tackle drug taking and safety concerns. However, tough drug testing is laid down in some employees' contracts. Railtrack, for instance, demands that anyone working in a "safety critical" area has to sign a safety critical contract and may be tested for drugs.

Construction companies are also required to sign these contracts when working for Railtrack. Balfour Beatty confirmed that it adheres to the Railtrack policy.

With health and safety high on the construction agenda, the widespread impact of drug use on building sites will have to be addressed.

The legal position

The principal relevant legislation in the UK is the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. Nearly all drugs that can be misused and/or are addictive are covered by it. The act makes production, supply and possession of controlled drugs unlawful except in specified circumstances. Under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974, employers have a general duty to ensure, as far as is reasonably practicable, the health, safety and welfare at work of employees. Under the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1992, employers also have a duty to assess the risks to the health and safety of employees. If employers knowingly allow an employee under the influence of drug misuse to continue working and his or her behaviour places the employee or others at risk, they could be prosecuted. Employees are also required to take reasonable care of themselves and others who could be affected by what they do at work.

The American experience

In June 1999 Milwaukee’s construction unions launched Wisconsin’s first random drugs tests for site workers. Under the initiative, billed as a national model, workers in Waukesha, Ozaukee and Washington counties were subjected to unannounced tests for alcohol and illegal drugs. The scheme reduced the number of accidents and only 2% of those tested are found positive compared with a national average of 14%. Ed Hayden, executive vice-president of the Allied Construction Employers Association in Wisconsin, believes that the message is getting across because the right kind of deterrents are in place. He says construction leads the pack in the number of its workers who take drugs, so random testing is good news. He adds that contractors and unions mounted an education campaign about the physical effects of drug abuse and says people saw it was so dangerous that the industry wouldn’t stand for it. Hayden says: “There has been underground substance abuse in construction for some time and now the message is across that people are not going to get away with it. “It is difficult to give figures relating to the amount of accidents but the number of accidents and workplace incidents has definitely gone down since the introduction of random testing.”

A study of 71 construction firms found that workers experienced a 51% reduction in injury rates within two years of implementing the drug testing; 72% of the respondents believed the benefits of testing outweighed the costs. Stephen Ward, a construction investigator for New York attorney White Fleischner & Fino, says that on New York construction sites, large crane operators are subject to strict drug testing. If an operator tests positive he is usually suspended and sent on a treatment programme. Ward says: “Many unions fight the idea of random drug testing. However, many large construction companies require the test and this has made it easier to weed out chronic users before they harm themselves or someone else.”