Drugs and Alcohol in the Workplace

September 4, 2018 • Previsor

One in four adults binge drinks, and one in ten adults uses illicit drugs. They’re not out on the street, though: research shows that most of these adults are working at jobs. In this discussion, we explore the risks that safety professionals need to know about, and best practices for mitigating them.

Listen to this interview on the WorkSAFE Podcast, or read the show notes below.

About our guests:

Terri Sweeten is a field service manager at Missouri Employers Mutual. She oversees claims training, management, subrogation and accident investigations. She works closely with policyholders throughout central Missouri.

Breck Dumas is a journalist with a background in business and politics. She has been a U.S. Senate staffer, a radio show host, and editor for the Columbia Business Times. Now she’s an independent writer.

Scope of the problem: Users are at work

According to the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, more than 70 percent of those using illicit drugs in America are employed. Coupled with the fact that one in four adults binge drinks, that means there are a lot of people in the workforce whose safety and performance may be impacted by the effects of a substance.

Alcohol use is the most common, but substances ranging from prescription drugs to performance enhancers could be present in the workplace. And the verdict is in: substance abuse can negatively impact a workplace in many ways. The most important is its effect on the safety of the user and those around them.

Industries affected

Any industry could be vulnerable to safety compromise due to substance abuse. But it affects some industries more than others. Breck, who researched this topic for her piece Performance-Enhancing Drugs in the Office, found that people in high-pressure positions may turn to performance-enhancing drugs to boost their performance at work. These substances could range from prescriptions like Adderall to illicit drugs. Often, this misuse goes unnoticed because the user is a top performer. This is a concern in industries with hefty time demands like healthcare, academia, retail and food service.

These industries may also be less likely to perform pre-employment and random drug tests, too. Terri explained, “In the construction industry, it’s pretty well known that drug testing is a requirement for employment. When you get into retail, schools, things along that line, there aren’t as many formalized programs.”

Prescription drug misuse

Employers might think that street drugs are the biggest concern when it comes to substance use at work. But as awareness of the opioid crisis increases, you should also be worried about prescription misuse. Federal laws clarify that using a prescription medication not in your name is illegal. Pressure is increasing on medical providers to limit the use of narcotics, and insurance providers are monitoring this too.

It’s not just misuse that employers must consider. Even if someone has a legitimate prescription for a drug, there could be limits to the job duties they can safely perform while taking it. If your employee is doing safety-sensitive activities like operating heavy equipment, you have a liability to understand if they are taking prescriptions that could impair them. While the ADA allows employers to ask for this information when safety is at stake, it’s a sensitive issue. You should consult with your general counsel or a lawyer to find out what you should ask and when.

Legalization of marijuana

The state of Missouri recently passed a law legalizing medical marijuana use. This trend, along with several states having fully legalized the substance, has reduced the stigma around marijuana use. While these changes may send some employers into panic mode, the implications may not be so extreme for your drug-free workplace policy. “I get questions about marijuana regularly when I do training. What happens when they legalize marijuana in my state?” Terri commented. “Well, alcohol is legal, and you still have a policy that says you’re not allowed to be under the influence in the workplace.”

The catch with marijuana is that it stays in a user’s system much longer than other substances, like alcohol. When it comes to recreational marijuana use, the safest route for employers may be to establish a zero-tolerance policy. If an employee tests positive, they’re subject to disciplinary action.

For medical marijuana use, the approach is less clear – but there are some similarities between it and the use of a prescription drug that affects employees’ abilities to do some tasks, like operating machinery. You should continue to work with your legal counsel to establish policies and approaches as laws fluctuate and changes emerge.

Performance-enhancing drugs

The use of some substances may be easier to spot than others. Employees may use drugs like Adderall or even cocaine to work more hours and may be some of the highest performers. However, Terri points out that what appear to be positive productivity effects of these substances are both unsustainable and unhealthy. “Eventually, use of those performance-enhancing drugs is going to result in a workplace injury, or an employee becoming unhealthy or being sick,” she explained. It’s important to be consistent in the application of your drug-free workplace policy, and not to discriminate against employees that may appear to be high performers.

Drug-free workplace and substance testing policies

A drug and alcohol policy can include four testing scenarios:

  • Pre-employment
  • Post-incident
  • Random
  • Reasonable suspicion

Follow your policy across the board, regardless of the substance type. Remember that a prescription drug without a prescription is also illegal. “We’re hearing a lot of claims where it’s their mom’s or their sister’s. If they don’t have a medical prescription that they can prove, they’re under the influence of an illegal drug,” explained Terri.

Costs of bypassing tests

Some employers may be hesitant to perform pre-employment drug screenings due to a pervasive worker shortage. However, companies that bypass these tests tend to have higher e-mods – and likely higher premium. The reason for this, Terri explains, is that perpetual substance users self-select out of companies that perform pre-employment screenings. Companies without these tests end up having higher injury rates and more emergency room visits.

About 16 percent of ER patients injured at work have alcohol in their system. Performing tests at the outset will help you avoid hiring employees who will come to work under the influence of substances, endangering themselves and the rest of your team.

Self-administered onsite testing

Missouri work comp law states that an employer must perform a post-incident drug test within 24 hours of the injury. That’s a short amount of time, and for many employers, getting the employee in question to a certified testing facility is unrealistic in that time frame. The best way to ensure your test is valid – which can lead to penalties, reducing your claim costs – is to have a plan. Have an incident reporting policy and make sure your employees know that they’re expected to report incidents right away.

Many employers, especially those in rural areas, are now using self-administered drug tests. You can purchase these tests from several companies; MEM partners with OraSure. Self-administered tests are much more convenient than sending employees to a facility. If the test is positive, the employee still must visit a certified facility, but if it’s negative, you’ve learned that there’s no need.

Be aware of employees’ behavior

Drug-free workplace and incident reporting policies are crucial to protecting your employees and your business. But what employers need most, says Terri, is awareness. “If you see changes in an employee – they used to always do their work one way, and now they’re doing things differently and unsafely – you need to take action.” Respond to unsafe behaviors with disciplinary action.

OSHA testing guidelines

OSHA recently shared some new guidelines that outline when employers should and should not perform post-incident drug testing. These guidelines made some employers nervous that their actions could be considered discriminatory. However, the important thing to remember is that you should have a clear incident reporting policy and follow it every time. If your policy outlines when you’ll perform a post-incident substance test, you shouldn’t be concerned.

“We’ve talked to a lot of OSHA inspectors and gotten legal opinions,” said Terri. “Follow your drug testing policy for all employees. Don’t discriminate. Do have a good accident reporting policy and perform testing if someone seeks medical care outside of your network.”

Support employees’ safety and recovery

Many companies offer programs that can provide support to employees struggling with substance abuse or maintaining long-term sobriety. One of the most effective is an Employee Assistance Program (EAP), which allows employees to confidentially use free counseling or therapy services.

Substance use in the workplace is a hot topic and the laws around it are changing every year. What’s not changing is that employers have a responsibility to ensure a safe workplace for their employees and a right to protect their business. Make sure you’re set up to do so by establishing policies for incident reporting and a drug-free workplace. Communicate your expectations with employees, and apply your policies fairly and consistently.

For more on creating a drug and alcohol-free workplace, check out our resource library.

September 4, 2018
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