The recent legalization of marijuana in Washington, Colorado, Oregon, and Alaska has inspired much discussion about its impact on employers in those states and potentially others. However, there is a drug that has been legal for years that employers should really be concerned about, and that is alcohol.
According to the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, about 14 million U.S. workers are substance abusers, and the majority of them (85 percent) abuse alcohol.
That’s a problem because, according to Robert J. Grossman, author of the article “What to Do about Substance Abuse,” substance abusers are “three-and-a-half times more likely to cause accidents at work and in transit.” Additionally, substance abusers use more sick days than their co-workers (an average of 45 percent) and “their health care costs are double their peers’.”
In a survey conducted by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, 60 percent of respondents said that their companies are “tough” on illegal drugs but “soft” on alcohol. Additionally, more managers and supervisors actually reported drinking during the workday and at company functions than other employees.
Perhaps it is because alcohol is legal and socially acceptable that employers tend to put less importance on its negative impact at work. According to the Office of National Drug Control Policy, “many companies do not have alcohol policies; those that do may not enforce them effectively.” Those companies should know that one in five workers (in a George Washington University survey) reported they had been “injured or put in danger on the job because of a colleague’s drinking, or having to work harder, redo work or cover for a co-worker as a result of a fellow employee’s drinking.”
The information above suggests that employers might benefit from becoming more knowledgeable and/or proactive about alcohol abuse. According to John Pompe, manager of disability and behavioral health programs at Caterpillar Inc., “Alcohol- and substance-related problems present a clear threat to employers in terms of productivity loss, safety, employee engagement, use of supervisory time and health care costs. The problem is that most employees with substance abuse problems go unrecognized and even more go untreated.”
What should employers look for? According to The American Council for Drug Education, symptoms of alcohol abuse include:
• Frequent, prolonged, and often unexplained absences
• Involvement in accidents both on and off the job
• Erratic work patterns and reduced productivity
• Indifference to personal hygiene
• Overreaction to real or imagined criticism
• Overt physical signs such as exhaustion or hyperactivity, dilated pupils, slurred speech, or an unsteady walk.
How should employers treat alcohol abuse? The Occupational Safety & Health Administration suggests a comprehensive drug-free workforce approach that includes five components:
• a policy,
• supervisor training,
• employee education,
• employee assistance, and
According to OSHA, such programs, especially when testing is included, must be reasonable and take into consideration employee rights to privacy. Additionally, some states, such as California, require employers to reasonably accommodate employees who wish to voluntarily participate in a drug or alcohol rehabilitation program.
Employers do their employees as well as themselves a favor by addressing every kind of substance abuse in the workplace, because every kind of drug use is a threat to everyone involved, regardless of whether it is illegal or not.