Drugs and Alcohol in the Workplace

By Joe O'Connor | Jun 15, 2003




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Help employees before it hurts your business Discussion of drug and alcohol policy can yield a number of responses. For the non-drinker or someone who has lost a loved one due to another’s abuse, the topic commands respect. The social drinker cautiously evaluates the comparison of alcohol with the use of illicit drugs and is turned away by an overzealous approach.

The party animal, a common creature found in the construction industry, may avoid the subject altogether. The figures provided here should capture the curiosity of all and encourage everyone to follow the responsible and reasonable course of action offered.

From an employee perspective, safety problems and unfair workloads stand out as consequences. As much as 40 percent of job fatalities and 47 percent of injuries can be linked to alcohol.

Seventy-seven percent of the illicit drug users in the United States work. More than 60 percent of workers know someone who has reported for work under the influence of alcohol or drugs. Twenty percent of the working population has reported that they have had to do extra work to compensate or cover for a fellow employee who reported to work under the influence of alcohol.

The employer must focus on costs. While bearing the emotional burden for an employee injury or fatality, the employer must struggle for the survival of the business. Hidden expenses from items such as downtime and equipment damage, compounded by increases in worker’s compensation costs, can close the doors of the company. Higher absenteeism and turnover rates among drug and alcohol users are other expenses an employer may have to bear.

A study from the U.S. Postal Service noted that “employees who tested positive in a pre-employment drug test are 66 percent more likely to be absent and 77 percent more likely to be discharged within three years than those who tested negative.” Other costs are not as easily identified, but can be as damaging.

For example, low morale can result in decreased productivity.

Addressing these concerns requires a responsible approach. Social acceptance of alcohol use in a particular group, or even recreational drug use, hinders the establishment of workplace rules.

Policies and actions should be based on the effects of a drug, their duration and legal requirements. For example, alcohol literature often refers to the need for the body to have at least one hour to process a single drink. A late night of binge drinking (defined as five or more drinks on one occasion) followed by an early call to work is both dangerous and illegal.

Without the time to process the alcohol, the individual will be over the limit to operate a motor vehicle. Therefore, regardless of your personal views, this type of behavior is unacceptable.

Employers and employees should know the facts about drugs and alcohol as well as rules governing the workplace. In March 1989, the Drug-Free Workplace Act of 1988 became effective.

Any contractor working for the federal government on a project for more than $100,000 must have a program in place. Any business that employs CDL (Commercial Driver’s License) drivers must implement a program and perform drug and alcohol testing.

The Department of Transportation’s rule 49 CFR Part 40 describes the required procedures for conducting workplace drug and alcohol testing for the federally regulated transportation industry.

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s rule 49 CFR 382 provides drug and alcohol testing requirements for carriers and commercial driver’s license holders. The basic requirements are that pre-employment, random and post-accident tests be performed.

With respect to the Drug-Free Workplace Program, employers must set a policy to prevent drug use in the workplace and establish a “drug awareness program.” The program should include information on the dangers of drug use, availability of assistance programs, a company drug and alcohol policy and penalties for violations.

The development and implementation of a program is vital to safety. Whether governed by the rules mentioned above or not, all employers should develop a program.

When developing the program, be sure you have the participation of all employees. Coworkers are usually the first to recognize that a drug or alcohol problem exists. Set up an information peer network based on proven guidelines.

All workers must agree that what appears to be drug problems must be addressed as job performance or safety problems. Once a set of standards has been agreed upon, be sure all workers are aware of them. Inform new employees of your standards. Devise ways to remind everyone of the standards without interrupting work. When addressed early, job performance problems and disciplinary actions can be avoided.

Become familiar with all available assistance programs. To locate effective assistance/outreach, the Department of Labor offers a Web site for a Drug-Free Workplace at Also, consult NECA publications, such as the NECA Safety Expert System. If you do encounter a problem, remember the road to recovery for a drug user is difficult. Make the transition as easy as possible. Offer any support you can. EC

O’CONNOR is with Intec, a producer of safety manuals with training videos and software for contractors. Based in Alexandria, Va., he can be reached at 703.628.4326, or by e-mail at [email protected].


About The Author

Joe O'Connor is with Intec, a safety consulting, training and publishing firm that offers on-site assistance and produces manuals, training videos and software for contractors. Based in Waverly, Pa., he can be reached at 607.624.7159 or [email protected].





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