Drug and Alcohol Abuse in the Workplace

Stephen Pearce, one of the Safety Concepts readers, has submitted this article after conducting indepth research on drugs and alcohol and their affect in the workplace. Stephen shares some thought-provoking insights into this hazard as well as some worrying statistics.  Thank you Stephen.

Can your Organisation, Company, and/or Business afford not to conduct regular Drug and Alcohol Screening of all your employees in your work place?

Hypersensitivity can indicate Drug useHas there been an increase is work related injuries and/or incidents in your workplace?

Has there been a drop in production?

Have there been an increase is customer/client complaints?

Have some of your employees become increasingly less productive?

Have you noticed or witnessed an increase in radical behaviour from some of your employees?

Has there been an increase in employees wanting/needing time off or being continually late for work?

If you have answered ‘yes’ to more than one of the above questions, it’s time to re-think your Policies and Procedures in relation to WH&S. Who is responsible for safety in the workplace? We are all responsible. Who will be held accountable if something goes wrong due to poor WH&S practises in your workplace? You, the employer.

Before addressing the issue of workplace drug testing, I would like to clarify the use of the term “abuse” in the title. In many respects the term “abuse” (whether alcohol or any other drug “abuse”) is something of a misnomer. What constitutes drug “abuse” often depends on individual perceptions. Our interpretation and understanding of drug use and drug related harm is often based on historical, social and political processes rather than the level of harm related to the use of a particular drug.

For example, some people regard any illicit drug use as “unsafe”, “misuse” or “abuse” on the basis of its illegality rather than levels of related harm. Similarly, many people see alcohol as a social beverage rather than a drug, and therefore do not see a clear relationship between alcohol use and drug related harm.

Rather than think in terms of “abuse” it is more constructive to think in terms of hazardous or harmful use. Harmful or hazardous use is defined as drug use that results in negative outcomes for individuals and/or society. Potential harmful or hazardous use can be determined by the amount used, the frequency of use, or the effects of the drug itself. In addition the context (time and location of use) also determines whether there is any potential for harm or hazard.

In the case of the workplace, for example, a worker who has four beers at lunchtime during the working day will be a much greater risk to workplace safety than a worker who has four beers after work. But a worker who has 10 beers after work is more likely to have increased absenteeism and low productivity due to hangover effects.

Identifying Employee Drug or Alcohol Problems: Drugs and Alcohol at Work

Drugs and alcohol in the workplace is dangerous. Employees may be using alcohol or drugs at work, and then operating equipment, or working in an industrial situation where other employees depend on them for their own safety.

Just imagine what would happen after an intoxicated employee caused an accident resulting in serious injury or death to other employees? Did the employer know, or should they have known about the employee drug or alcohol problem? What steps did they take to address it? Ignoring an employee alcohol or drug problem is a recipe for disaster, and simply terminating the employment doesn’t help either. The employee and their drug or alcohol problem just change workplace locations.

Employee drug and alcohol problems cost organizations, in lost productivity, worker absenteeism, safety violations, money, and time. Employers and co-workers need to take the steps necessary to identify employee drug and alcohol problems and seek the appropriate help.

Recognizing the Signs of Employee Drug or Alcohol Problems in the Workplace

Because your employee or co-worker doesn’t have to drink or use drugs every day to have a problem, it’s sometimes difficult to recognize the signs and symptoms of drug and alcohol problems at work.  This checklist of workplace indicators can help you determine if what you are observing is likely an employee alcohol or drug problem, and if a drug intervention is needed.

However, please remember that if your employee or co-worker shows any of the following workplace behaviours, it does not necessarily signal a problem with drugs or alcohol at work. The presence of some of these signs could relate to stress, depression or other problems that are not related to drugs or alcohol.

Workplace Indicators of Employee Drug or Alcohol Problems:

  • Workaholic behaviour
  • Disorganized schedule
  • Decreased workload or workload intolerance
  • Unsatisfactory work performance
  • Alcohol on breath with attempts to cover with mints, mouthwash
  • Frequent unexplained absences or prolonged breaks
  • Tardiness or leaving work early
  • Withdrawal from professional committees or organizations
  • Defensive if questioned or confronted about the problem
  • Poor judgment
  • Observed occurrences of intoxication, drowsiness, hypersensitivity during work hours
  • Deadlines barely met or missed altogether
  • Frequent job changes or relocation
  • Avoiding supervisor or other co-workers

Research that has examined the relationship between drug use and workplace fatalities also indicates that alcohol use plays a major role. For example the National Health and Safety Commission (1998) examined the workplace fatalities that occurred in Australia between 1989 and 1992. Of the 2,389 fatalities recorded, raised blood alcohol content appeared to account for at least 96 (4%) of these deaths.

While data on other drug use was only available for about one third of these fatalities, drug use appeared to account for about 2% of the total. Of this 2%, the most common drug involved was amphetamine, and these fatalities occurred in road accidents. Two things can be noted from this study:

  • First, the causal relationship between drug use and the fatality was determined by blood tests that could determine intoxication levels.
  • Second, the major contributor to drug related deaths was alcohol. Despite this, a Flinders University study this year found nationally nearly one in five employees is using illegal drugs. The study was based on the 2004 National Drug Strategy Household Survey of 30,000 Australians. The report is based on previous research and shows at least five per cent of deaths and between 3 and 13% of work injuries are related to drug and alcohol use.

This being said; can you afford to ignore what may be happening in your workplace any longer? Do you think it is time to seek the services of recognised professionals to assist you with the safety of all your employees, clients, stakeholders and others that enter your workplace? Drug and Alcohol affected persons in the workplace are a liability to everyone.

About the Author

Safety Concepts is an online resource providing up to date insights and covering issues in the field of Workplace Safety.

Comments (3)

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  1. Vince Beitia says:

    This is spot on stephen , as i have seen it in a workplace
    Most accidents and neer misses occour soon after lunch break
    and usually by the same operators. The system fails when the particular workplace does not have a drug and alcohol testing policy and the word quickly spreeds to other drug users . I have seen one man with a drug problem get a job for three mates and become quite smug at the fact that no one will do anything about it.

  2. I find it interesting to walk about city streets and seeing people wearing safety vests, work clothes (including boots) sitting in places having their ‘smoko’ at 10am with a beer in front of them. One could jump to conclusions and assume that they were at work. What if they started early and had finished their shift? Some people do jump to conclusions based on observations without asking questions. Perhaps there a workplace cultures or even policies that allow the consumption of liquor during a break. As many conferences are now indicating, drug and alcohol policies and even testing seem to be increasing. Perhaps like many other policies, the implementation process does not consider the realities of what really happens in the workplace. Some people really do work hard and do earn a cold drink on a hot day. Finger pointing and jumping to conclusions without asking questions will not solve the problem. On a serious side, tolerance of ‘iffy’ workplace practices leads to acceptance and when a workplace incident occur, all manner of questions are asked in an effort to find out what happened. Some people might be able to ‘handle’ larger amounts of liquor whilst others might not realise that it does take time for the body to disperse the amount consumed, and because of this, the liquor remains present for some time, and an incident might occur on the way home.

  3. kim says:

    A faa drug abatement program reduces accidents, absenteeism, ill health, litigation and other issues. More and more companies use drug testing these days.

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