Working at heights: patterns and predictors of illicit drug use in construction workers

August 2020
Chapman, J., Roche, A.M., Duraisingam, V., Phillips, B., Finnane, J., Pidd, K. (2020). Working at heights: patterns and predictors of illicit drug use in construction workers. Drugs: Education, Prevention and Policy, Early online publication, 1-9.


Extensive research conducted by NCETA and others has found that, locally and internationally, the construction industry is identified as:

  • a demanding and dangerous profession, with workers frequently exposed to high occupational risk and hazardous working conditions
  • high risk for workplace drug use and related harms

Despite this, the patterns and determinants of drug use in construction are not well understood.

To address this anomaly, the current study assessed the determinants of the use of three main drug types (cannabis, cocaine, meth/amphetamine) in male construction workers by examining individual-level predictors and workplace substance use climate variables.


A convenience sample of construction workers in NSW were obtained through collaboration with the NSW Building Trades Group (BTG). Subjects were recruited as part of a BTG professional development session. Workers were approached by researchers onsite prior to undertaking drug and alcohol impairment training at their workplace and asked to take part in an anonymous survey study.

The survey was developed and administered by NCETA and took approximately 15 minutes to complete.


A total of 530 male respondents were invited to participate in the study. Of these, 511 completed the survey, demonstrating a high response rate. The study found that:

  • cannabis use over the past 12 months (21%) was approximately two-thirds higher than national estimates
  • methamphetamine use (6%) was approximately three times higher than the national estimate in male workers
  • cocaine use (23% over the past 12 months) was five times higher than the national average among employed men. This important and novel finding was also in contrast to previous 2006 data which showed that cocaine use (2%) among Australian construction workers was quite low
  • workplace availability and cultural workplace norms were significant predictors of cocaine use
  • higher alcohol consumption was a consistent predictor across drug types and younger age groups
  • poorer general health was predictive of cannabis and cocaine use.

Conclusion / implications:

Even though cocaine was the most commonly used drug among this sample of construction workers, it has received relatively little attention, being largely overshadowed by public concern and current policy focus on crystal methamphetamine (ice). Shift work and the physical nature of construction work may contribute to increased cocaine use to offset fatigue. Cocaine use coupled with heavy alcohol use highlight the need to increase workers’ understanding of the health and safety risks associated with cocaine, both alone and in combination with alcohol.

Multi-component approaches involving culture change and individual-level responses that target vulnerable workers are required to minimise risk from AOD-related harm for construction workers.