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Addictions troubling in Yukon workplaces

Substance abuse at Yukon workplaces is a serious concern, but hard numbers are hard to come by.

Substance abuse at Yukon workplaces is a serious concern, but hard numbers are hard to come by.

According to a recent report on the healthcare needs of Watson Lake and Dawson City, roughly one quarter of all Yukon mining jobs are lost because of substance abuse in the territory.

The figure comes from the report’s qualitative assessment of the issues facing the two Yukon communities, which represents a “synthesis of observations from informed sources,” not hard data.

But according to the Yukon Producers’ Group, the real number of lost jobs is nowhere near that high.

“No, I don’t think it’s a fair reflection at all. We were certainly surprised,” said Brad Thrall, the chair of the Yukon Producers Group.

“Our data indicates certainly less than one per cent of the turnover is due to drug and alcohol abuse or problems at the site. It’s not even close to the 25 per cent,” Thrall said.

He criticized the report for not having sought the input of the Yukon’s three producing mines when researching the impact of drugs and alcohol.

“We’re not sure where that number came from in the study. Nobody in the mining industry was even asked,” Thrall said.

Hugh Kitchen, the president of the Yukon Chamber of Mines, agrees. He said that the three operating mines have treatment programs in place to help workers struggling with addictions and try to save jobs when they can because it’s cheaper than hiring new employees.

The mines all have robust testing and enforcement protocols. Drug tests are also done as part of the reporting process after injuries or near misses, and if an employee fails a drug test or is found intoxicated at work, he’s not necessarily fired on the spot.

“Instead of just firing him and running him off, they say okay, perhaps let’s try and help this individual with this. Mines are always struggling to get someone. In the long run it’s cheaper to keep them and get them some help,” Kitchen said.

He conceded that it’s possible the situation may be different for junior mining and exploration companies, which could help explain the disparity between the Producers Group claim of one per cent and the report’s 25 per cent.

“There are so many jobs and so much activity out in the bush and lots of turnover. Many of the jobs are seasonal, but I don’t know how they arrived at that 25 per cent number,” Kitchen said.

According to the Yukon Worker’s Compensation Health and Safety Board, somewhere between 15 and 25 per cent of post-injury reports at jobsites find some involvement of substance abuse.

Kurt Dieckmann, the board’s director, cautioned against putting too much stock in specific statistics.

Given the small sample sizes in the Yukon, even one positive drug test after an accident or near miss at a jobsite could sway the statistics greatly.

“The problem is we’re talking about very low numbers, like maybe four or five incidents. That’s the problem with Yukon statistics; the numbers are just so low,” Dieckmann said.

He also explained where he thinks the numerical disparity might be coming from. It can be hard to gauge the exact number of jobs lost to addictions because people getting caught with drugs and fired is only a small part of those affected.

“In that report, we think that people were self-selecting out of the mining industry because they know there is drug and alcohol testing. If somebody uses drugs and alcohol, and they know they’re going to be tested, they’re not going bother showing up for work,” Dieckmann said.

On the whole, Dieckmann said it is likely that only one per cent of the workforce is actually caught with drugs and fired as a result at the big mines. But just because three producing mine companies are good at keeping drugs off their property doesn’t mean there isn’t still a problem.

“It does not negate the fact that we still have a concern with the health of the Yukon workforce. The mining industry is actually an industry that does the best work in terms of drug and alcohol screening. My greater concern is the drug and alcohol use in Yukon workplaces in general, across the full gamut of industry,” Dieckmann said.

Contact Jesse Winter at