Illegal drugs aren't the only risk

When you hear about the risk of drugs on board, you probably think of illegal substances like cannabis and meth.

But it's important to remember that other drugs, such as alcohol and prescription medication, can cause similar levels of impairment.

The trouble is, because these substances are legal and, in some cases, essential, they can be harder to manage. How can you stop an injured person from taking pain relief? Or curb a crew's drinking session the night before sailing? There's no easy answer to these questions, but we've put some guidelines together to help you to minimise risks.


How to approach alcohol

There's a long list of reasons why drinking and fishing should never be combined, and most of them are common sense. The fact is any amount of alcohol can cause impairment, including:

  • slower reaction times
  • inability to perform simple tasks
  • poor judgment
  • poor coordination
  • boosted confidence, which increases risk-taking.

Not forgetting that factors like wind, sun, noise, motion and vibration can magnify impairment.

Something else to be aware of is impairment from having a hangover. Someone who goes to sea after a night of heavy drinking — tired, slow and moody — can be as much of a risk to themselves and others as someone who drinks several beers on board. But what can you do about it?


Talking to your crew is crucial

Drinking alcohol is firmly ingrained in our culture, and we can't control what people do outside of work hours. That's why education is key. Being open with your crew and encouraging discussions about the risks of working while drunk or hungover is the best thing you can do. Following these guidelines should also help:

  • have a ‘no alcohol at sea’ policy — this should be outlined in your drugs and alcohol policy (keep an eye out for an email with tips on writing an effective drugs and alcohol policy — coming soon)
  • go a step further, and have a ‘no drinking alcohol within 4 hours before starting work’ policy
  • encourage crew members to abstain from drinking alcohol the night before sailing.

If impairment from alcohol is a particular risk on your vessel, you could also consider introducing drug and alcohol testing (we'll also cover this in an upcoming email).


How to manage prescription medication

Some prescription medication can have similar symptoms to illegal drugs, with side effects like shorter attention span, slower reaction times, and drowsiness. If a medicine is not safe to take before driving or using heavy machinery, it's not safe to take on board. A fishing vessel is heavy machinery!

But injury is common among fishers, which means pain relief is too. That's why opioid use is a concern. Opioids include oxycodone and morphine, which are prescribed by doctors to relieve pain, but can also have side effects like confusion, drowsiness and nausea. They're also highly addictive.


Talking is the best medicine

Once again, the best thing you can do is be open. Talk to your crew. Encourage discussions about the risks of impairment from all forms of drugs — and make sure everyone's aware of your drugs and alcohol policy.


What can your crew do?

To reduce the risk of an accident caused by medication-related impairment, your crew can:

  • look at ways to manage pain without medication — check out these ideas from the New Zealand Pain Society
  • tell you about any medicines they're taking that may cause drowsiness and impairment (this requirement should be included in your drugs and alcohol policy)
  • check their medicine labels for warnings such as ‘may cause drowsiness’
  • if they're taking opioids or other medication that causes impairment, speak to their doctor about:
    • adjusting the doses
    • adjusting the timing of doses
    • prescribing an alternative medicine that doesn't cause drowsiness (over-the-counter medications such as Ibuprofen can be more effective and have fewer side effects)
    • be aware that medication can affect everyone in different ways and sometimes it can take 2 or 3 doses before we know how it affects us.


What can you do?

In turn, you also need to be willing and able to do your bit to minimise the risk of someone working while impaired. If someone is taking medication for an injury, can they take time off to recover? Or, can they do other duties that put them at less risk? What other support can you provide them with? Remember too, to respect your crews' privacy by not questioning why they're taking any medicines they tell you about. All you need to know is that they could be a risk to their safety.

Take steps to minimise the risk of impairment from alcohol and prescription medication.


Face the facts

Since 2011, the number of prescriptions for pain medication increased from 6.15 million to 7.18 million in 2016.

During the same period, the number of scripts for opioid painkillers climbed by almost 20%, from 1.56 million to 1.85 million.

*Pharmac figures