Substance abuse in the workplace – what is the cost?

Nearly 75 percent of illicit drug users 18 and older are employed. That’s topped by the nearly 80 percent of adults who are heavy drinkers – 7 percent of whom admit to drinking on the job, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

That may serve as a wake-up call, especially in a time when many companies are running bare-bones operations and increased productivity is a must.

On average, a person using drugs at work will cost about $13,000 a year in health care related costs due to sickness, absentee rates, loss in effectiveness and productivity and injury at work, said Terry Johnson, president of the Vancouver franchise of AccuDiagnostics drug, alcohol and background screening.

That doesn’t include the impact on coworkers, who often report having been put in danger, been injured or have had to work harder, re-do work or cover for a coworker due to that coworker’s substance abuse.

 “Substance abuse has an affect on one’s family and the workers around them,” Johnson said. “There is a price to that that you can’t quantify.”

Small businesses are particularly vulnerable, and they are less likely to test for substance use, said Jeffrey Brockway, manager of Solutions Employee Assistance’s chemical dependency services and spiritual care at Southwest Washington Medical Center.  

What to watch for

Supervisors should watch for red flags, such as inconsistent work quality, poor concentration, lower productivity, absenteeism, presenteeism and unexplained absences from the work site. Other signs are needless risk taking, errors in judgment and extended lunch breaks or leaving work early routinely.

“They’re likely having financial problems and difficultly in relationships and blaming others for their mistakes and problems,” Brockway said.

When substance abuse is suspected, supervisors should stick to the facts about a worker’s performance and have supporting documents to back them up, he said.

“This way, you’re not discussing alcohol and drug use, just performance,” Brockway said. “Explain the policy about performance and the drug-free workplace policy and let them know the consequences based on performance.

“Don’t say, ‘I think you have a drug problem.’ ”

This is harder to do in smaller companies where there may be emotional involvement among long-term staff.  

“Say, ‘I’ve become concerned about you,’ and refer the employee to an employee assistance program to talk to a counselor,” Brockway said. “This gives the supervisor an out – they don’t have to discuss drug use.”

Crafting a policy

Most private companies are not legally required to have drug-free workplace policies, but the absence of one can leave businesses vulnerable to legal action.

A good policy takes into consideration several federal laws and regulations, including the Drug-Free Workplace Act, the Omnibus Transportation Employee Testing Act (and accompanying regulations), the U.S. Department of Defense’s Rules and Regulations for Defense Contractors, the National Labor Relations Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Civil Rights Act and the Family and Medical Leave Act, according to the “Drug-Free Workplace Kit,” by the Division of Workplace Programs in the Center for Substance Abuse Prevention, SAMHSA and Department of Health and Human Services.

The laws target workplace substance abuse and protect basic civil rights.

The ADA can be an employer’s biggest hurdle, said Kelly Walsh, an associate at Schwabe, Williamson and Wyatt’s Vancouver law office.

The ADA prohibits all U.S. employers with more than 15 employees from discriminating against qualified job applicants and employees because of a physical disability. The law also makes it illegal for employers to discriminate against recovering alcoholics and drug users who have already sought treatment for their addiction.

Under the ADA, employers can’t fire, refuse to hire or refuse to promote someone simply because he or she has a history of substance abuse or because he or she is enrolled in a drug or alcohol rehabilitation program.

“Even if there is an appearance of discrimination, you’re in trouble,” Walsh said.

One way to protect against the ADA is to write into a job description that being alcohol and drug free is a job requirement and that employees can’t use on the job, she added.

Polices should include definitions of what constitutes substance abuse, when and where the policy is in effect – only during work hours or outside the workplace while employees are off-duty? – and who is responsible for enforcing the policy.

The policy may also address whether drug testing is used.

If so, a good policy includes the standards for which testing will occur – whether it is random, for-cause or post-rehabilitation, Walsh said. It should address whether a confirmation test will be conducted if a positive test is returned and provide for confidentiality because it involves medical information.

Walsh recommended including for-cause testing to occur when there is reasonable suspicion substance abuse is taking place and giving an employee the right to explain or contest test results.

 “Most important is spelling out what the consequences of a positive test or a refusal to test will be,” Walsh said. “And be consistent. If you say you’re going to randomly test, make sure you actually do it.”

It is also a good idea to consult an attorney when crafting a policy, clearly state penalties for violations, ensure employees receive and sign a written copy of the policy, train supervisors to detect workplace substance use and keep detailed, objective records documenting performance problems of all employees, according to SAMSHA and DHHS.

The agencies also recommend to refrain from taking disciplinary action or making accusations against a worker simply because a worker is acting impaired, never confront an employee in front of coworkers or single out an individual employee for special treatment – any inconsistencies in the enforcement of your policy may lead to discrimination charges – and try to involve workers at all levels in developing and implementing a drug-free workplace policy.

Industries and workplace settings that are at higher risk for substance abuse to occur include late shift workers, restaurant workers and building and grounds or maintenance workers. Lower risk industries include health care, education and sales.

Industries that have the highest prevalence of illicit drug use are:

Accommodations and food services – 16.9 percent of workers reported drug use in one month

Construction – 13.7 percent of workers reported drug use in one month

Industries with the highest prevalence of heavy alcohol use are:

Construction – 13.7 percent of workers reported heavy use in one month

Arts, entertainment and recreation – 11.6 percent of workers reported heavy use in one month.

Source: “Worker Substance Use and Workplace Policies and Programs,” a 2007 Department of Health and Human Services publication

Megan Patrick-Vaughn can be reached at

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