Special Topics in Safety Management

Substance Abuse in the Workplace: Does Your Company Have a Problem?

April is Alcohol Awareness Month, which makes this a good time to think about substance abuse in the workplace.

According to the National Council on Alcohol and Drug Dependence, more than 18 million individuals (8.5% of Americans) suffer from alcohol-use disorders. Millions more abuse drugs—both street and prescription drugs.

Because many substance abusers are also workers, the cost of substance abuse to employers in terms of accidents, injuries, and lost workdays is enormous.

Key Points About Workplace Substance Abuse

  • Substance abuse may be found in any type of workplace in any industry.
  • Substance abuse may be a problem for all types and ages of people within an organization and at all levels.
  • Substance abuse may involve alcohol, illegal drugs, prescription drugs—or all three. Some of the most common drugs involved in cases of workplace substance abuse include alcohol, marijuana, amphetamines, and prescription drugs.
  • Substance abuse is a serious safety problem. Because of the possible effects of substance use, such as reduced physical coordination, slowed reflexes and mental responses, altered time and space perceptions, drowsiness, confusion, and overconfident, and reckless behavior, substance abuse is likely to lead to unsafe acts that cause accidents in the workplace.
  • The productivity and quality of a substance abuser’s work are also likely to deteriorate the more deeply the individual sinks into substance abuse.

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    How to Spot Substance Abuse

    The following performance and behavior problems are common to many employed individuals who abuse alcohol and/or other drugs:

    Performance problems include:

    • Inconsistent work quality
    • Poor concentration
    • Reduced productivity
    • Increased absenteeism and lateness
    • Unexplained disappearances from the jobsite
    • Carelessness, mistakes
    • Errors in judgment
    • Risk-taking
    • Disregard for safety
    • Extended lunch periods and early departures

    Behavior problems include:

    • Frequent financial problems
    • Avoidance of friends and colleagues
    • Overreacting to criticism
    • Blaming others for their own problems and shortcomings
    • Complaints about problems at home
    • Deterioration in personal appearance
    • Complaints and excuses of vaguely defined illnesses

    Please note, however, that an employee who displays any of these symptoms doesn’t necessarily have a substance abuse problem. There could be other reasons (health or emotional problems, family problems, etc.).


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    What Else to Look For

    In addition to looking at an employee’s performance and behavior, you should also look at what’s going on around that employee. For example, when there’s a substance abuse problem, there might also be an increase in:

    • Complaints from other workers (about mistakes, the employee not doing his/her share of the work, coming in late and leaving early, risk-taking behavior, etc.)
    • Near misses and accidents either involving the worker or taking place around the worker
    • Disputes with or aggressive behavior toward other workers and supervisors
    • Theft from the company and coworkers

    Over time you may also notice deterioration in morale among employees who work with or around substance abusers.