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Working Under the Influence -- A Danger Under the Radar

The Editors at Standard Publishing Corporation
Modern TV shows and movies tell us that the world of the 1960s is a world that doesn’t exist anymore -- a world of smoke-filled rooms, full skirts, open racism and sexism, and hidden desperation. Business in this world, the media tells us, was fueled by alcohol -- a glass of scotch for clients, martinis at lunch, an afternoon drink to relax … .

In reality, per-person alcohol consumption has increased since the 1960s. In Britain, it’s actually doubled in that time. The difference now is that most of us are drinking on our own time instead of our employers’ time. And those who are drinking before or during work generally aren’t obvious about it -- they’re likely to be hiding their consumption from their employers.

Modern TV shows and movies tell us that the world of the 1960s is a world that doesn’t exist anymore -- a world of smoke-filled rooms, full skirts, open racism and sexism, and hidden desperation. Business in this world, the media tells us, was fueled by alcohol -- a glass of scotch for clients, martinis at lunch, an afternoon drink to relax … .

In reality, per-person alcohol consumption has increased since the 1960s. In Britain, it’s actually doubled in that time. The difference now is that most of us are drinking on our own time instead of our employers’ time. And those who are drinking before or during work generally aren’t obvious about it -- they’re likely to be hiding their consumption from their employers.

While the majority of Americans use alcohol responsibly, excessive drinking is far from uncommon. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), 23.3 percent of the U.S. population over the age of 12 admitted to binge drinking (five or more drinks on the same occasion at least once in the last 30 days) and 6.9 percent were heavy drinkers (binge drinking on at least five of the last 30 days). Some people are bringing their alcohol consumption to work -- 1.7 percent of employed adults admitted to being under the influence of alcohol at work at least once in the past year. For illicit drugs, the figure was 2.9 percent. About 9.2 percent of employees went to work with a hangover at least once in the past year. (Here too, Britain beat the United States -- a study reported by the BBC found that about a third of British employees had gone to work with a hangover. And, according to the study, a little over 10 percent admitted to going to work still drunk.)

A once-a-year hangover or the occasional glass of wine with a big lunch won’t have a huge impact on employee productivity. It’s not something that most employers will worry too much about. However, when the behavior becomes more than occasional, it becomes a concern for employers. Intoxicated or hungover employees have more difficulty concentrating, make more mistakes, and are more likely to be a safety hazard than sober employees. According to SAMHSA, substance abusers are three to four times more likely to have an accident on the job, are five times more likely to file workers compensation claims, and cost their employers about twice as much in medical and workers compensation claims. Additionally, workers that admitted to heavy drinking or illicit drug use were more likely than other employees to have skipped more than two days of work in the past month.

The employee doing the heavy drinking or using drugs is not the only one affected by the behavior. Overall employee morale also suffers. According to a study from JSI Research and Training Institute, employees said that they had been put in danger or injured or forced to work harder to redo work because of a co-worker’s drinking.

Here’s the really bad news -- the industries that report the highest percentage of heavy drinking are some of the most dangerous industries. Construction and mining are in the top five for both alcohol and drug use. (On the bright side, those in the education and health-care fields reported some of the lowest alcohol and drug rates. So the people responsible for your children’s education and your family’s health are probably not drinking on the job.)

Though employees put themselves at greater risk by drinking before work, in many cases, workplace injuries to intoxicated workers will be covered by workers compensation. Courts have generally granted coverage to employees who were intoxicated when they were injured, as long as the intoxication was not the sole cause of the accident.

While employers or their insurers may be on the hook for injuries that have already happened, a formal drug-free workplace policy has been shown to help prevent accidents. SAMHSA reports that three of the four occupations with the lowest reported rates of drug use and heavy drinking are industries that have the highest rates of drug-free workplace policies and make substance-abuse information available to employees. There are probably a number of factors that contribute to the lower rates. Still, it appears that drug-free workplace programs have a role to play in making the workplace safer. And, to sweeten the deal, in some states, employers with drug-free workplace programs are eligible for workers compensation premium discounts.

A drug-free workplace program should incorporate at least some of five basic elements.

  1. Have a written drug policy that includes an explanation of why the policy is being implemented, a detailed description of what is not permitted, and an explanation of the consequences of violating the policy.
  2. Train supervisors on the details of the policy, how to recognize potential substance abuse problems, and what to do with that information.
  3. Educate all employees about the program.
  4. Offer a support system for employees that need assistance. An employee assistance program may be the best method. If that’s not an option, you at least can recommend resources in the community.
  5. You might want to implement employee drug testing. However, drug testing brings up a whole host of privacy issues, so it’s a good idea to seek legal advice before taking this step. Most employers can have an effective program without testing.

With the economy the way it is, you may be looking for ways to cut costs. But, recessions tend to drive up substance-abuse rates. If you don’t have a drug-free workplace program in place, now might be a good time to implement one. Small- and medium-sized employers, in particular, have much to gain from such a program. About 90 percent of full-time workers with substance abuse problems work for employers with fewer than 500 employees.

You may not have the resources to implement all five drug-free workplace elements -- an EAP or drug-testing program may be out of reach -- but you can establish a formal policy and invest a bit of time in educating employees and supervisors. (The United States Department of Labor Web site is a valuable tool for employers of any size.) A small investment now could result in big savings if an injury can be prevented.

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