Farm health report raises alcohol concerns

The impact of drug and alcohol use by workers in Australia’s rural industries has come under the spotlight in a new study.

A photo of liquid pouring from a can into a glass

PHOTO: Brad Collis

Nearly half of farm industry participants in a drug and alcohol study in 2011 were identified as “risky drinkers”, raising concerns about the impact of alcohol on health and safety in rural industries.

The report, commissioned by the Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation (RIRDC), is the most comprehensive yet on drug and alcohol use in farming (and fishing) industries.

Funded by the GRDC and other members of the Collaborative Partnership for Farming and Fishing Health and Safety, the Drug and alcohol use by farm and fishing workers report is based on information collected from grain, sugar, cotton and fishing industry sites in New South Wales and Victoria.

Lead researcher Dr Julaine Allan, from Charles Sturt University’s Centre for Inland Health, says about 44 per cent of the study participants were identified as risky drinkers who frequently consumed large amounts of alcohol.

A further 69 per cent consumed more alcohol than the amount recommended by the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC), which advises no more than two standard drinks a day and two alcohol-free days a week.

“Around half those [investigated] in the study who drink at risky levels had five or six drinks a day, putting them at risk of long-term harm,” Dr Allan says.

The study found that illicit drug use was significantly lower among rural workers in comparison to excessive alcohol consumption. Of those studied, 13.7 per cent reported using cannabis and nine per cent admitted to using amphetamines. Tobacco was used by 36 per cent of the study participants.

Younger participants typically reported binge drinking (10 or more drinks once or twice a week) at social gatherings, whereas older participants reported drinking between five and eight drinks regularly (often daily) at home. The study found women consumed alcohol at high-risk levels as frequently as men.

While study participants had limited awareness of how much alcohol they had consumed and its long-term impact, the report confirmed alcohol is implicated in more than 60 medical conditions including road crash injuries, occupational and machinery injuries, suicide, fall injuries, psychosis, acute medical illnesses such as stroke and pancreatitis, and chronic illnesses including cardiovascular disease, cancer, liver cirrhosis and epilepsy.

The study found that men carry a higher burden of health risk factors from alcohol misuse, leading to work-related problems, violence and drink driving.

The report supported earlier findings by the Australian Centre for Agricultural Health and Safety that alcohol misuse may be associated with the pressures experienced by growers as a result of circumstances such as drought, and compounded by limited access to support services.

The study raised as a particular concern the finding that some employers ignored drug and alcohol use by employees because of labour shortages, particularly during the harvest season.

RIRDC managing director Craig Burns says drug and alcohol use goes to the heart of industry productivity because of the way it depletes the capacity of the workforce and creates risk.

The report is expected to be used to develop strategies to reduce problematic alcohol and drug use in farming.
“Effective intervention strategies for problematic substance use are well developed,” Mr Burns says. “The challenge for the Collaborative Partnership for Farming and Fishing Health and Safety Program will be implementing those in a way that is accessible for rural workers.”

The project was conducted by a team from the Lyndon Community, Monash University, the University of Queensland, the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre and Charles Sturt University.

The Collaborative Partnership for Farming and Fishing Health and Safety is a joint project between the RIRDC, the GRDC, the Sugar Research and Development Corporation, the Cotton Research and Development Corporation, the Fisheries Research and Development Corporation and the Department of Health and Ageing.

The Drug and alcohol use by farm and fishing workers report includes a list of recommendations targeting policymakers, industry leaders and employers. The report can be downloaded free from and is also available in hard copy.

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