Managing substance abuse in the workplace

OHS professionals have an important role to play in providing remedies in the workplace for substance abusers

Though an employee’s personal life usually doesn’t fall within the responsibilities of an employer, individuals who use drugs or alcohol invariably carry side effects with them into the workplace. Studies have found that consumption of alcohol and the use of drugs during the hours immediately before work, at work (including lunch breaks), during specific occasions at work (such as company parties), and during travel to and from work, may have a negative impact on workplace activities.

Research published last year in Belgium by health and safety professionals Marie-Claire Lambrechts and Lode Godderis – who obtained data from 5 367 workers related to job-related consequences of alcohol and drug use – found that being late for work, absenteeism, loss of productivity, injuries, conflicts with co-workers and sanctions by employers were common threads among those who admitted to having a substance-abuse problem.

“The odds of job-related effects were 3,6-times greater than the odds among workers without this indication,” the researchers noted in their report. They believe that it is in society’s interests to prevent or tackle such problems.

“Given the impact of substance use on public health, it is also a topic for health promotion, since employees who are in good health are more productive and take fewer days sick leave. They are more likely to be motivated and more engaged at work. Also, healthy employees reduce the cost for employers,” the researchers noted.

They said that with the right policies in place, problems in the workplace resulting from the abuse of alcohol or other drugs by employees can be prevented or spotted in good time, thus increasing the chances of recovery.

According to the South Africa Labour Guide, it is not only heavy drinking that might result in significant mishaps at work – even low quantities of alcohol consumption have resulted in poor performance.

Quoting an international study involving airline pilots who were asked to perform routine tasks in a simulator, the Guide points out that, before consuming alcohol, only 10 percent of the subjects were unable to perform all tasks correctly. When their blood alcohol concentration was increased to 0,10/100 ml, the figure rose to 89 percent. And a test conducted when the alcohol was deemed to have left their bodies showed that 68 percent failed to perform all tasks as they had been instructed.

“Clearly this reveals that substance abuse should not be seen as only affecting heavy users, as incidents can result from the consumption of low quantities of alcohol as well. Thus, it becomes important for employers to implement preventative measures and management programmes rather than just concentrating on the identification and rehabilitation of heavy users,” the Guide says.

From this perspective, it’s clear that the workplace can play an important role in preventing and providing remedies for substance abusers, and it’s not surprising that the International Labour Organisation has developed a code of conduct aimed at helping employers to manage alcohol and drug issues.

According to the code, employers – together with employee representatives – should develop, in writing, a company policy on alcohol and drug abuse. If possible, the policy should be formulated with the help of medical personnel and occupational health and safety experts who have specialised knowledge regarding the subject. The policy should include information and procedures on:

Measures to control substance abuse in the workplace through good employment practices:

The code advises that where it is shown that certain job situations may contribute to substance abuse, the employer should identify and take appropriate preventative or remedial action.

Workers and their representatives should also not formally or informally support behaviour which incites, encourages or otherwise facilitates the harmful use of alcohol or the abuse of drugs on the premises. When an employee voluntarily discloses a previous history of substance abuse, the employer should take steps to ensure that he or she is not exposed to a working situation which could exacerbate the problem.

Restriction on alcohol, legal and illegal drugs in the workplace:

In consultation with employees, the employer should consider restricting or prohibiting the possession, consumption or selling of alcohol or drugs in the workplace. Employers should also consider withdrawing alcohol as an item for expense account reimbursement or restrict it to specific situations. Employers should also be prevented from paying any wages in the form of alcohol or drugs.

In instances were medication might result in workplace impairment, the employee should consult a health professional and inform his or her manager of the possible consequences.

Prevention through information, education and training programmes:

The code advocates that employers should promote safety and health in the workplace through information, education and training programmes, which discuss the physical and psychological effects of alcohol and drug use.

These programmes should also include the following information:

• General and specific rules and regulations regarding alcohol and drugs in the workplace;

• Suggested steps to prevent problems from occurring; and

• Services available to help employees with substance abuse problems both within and outside the workplace.

“It is recommended that managerial staff should be provided with additional training to assist them to identify changes in the individual’s performance and behaviour. This training should provide the necessary skills to respond to questions regarding the company’s policy on alcohol and drugs, as well as to be able to support a recovering worker’s needs and monitor that individual’s performance when he or she returns to work,” the code advises.

Additionally, the code recommends that training should be provided to employee representatives to enable them to assist workers who may require help, as well as to identify processes or conditions that might need to be changed or improved to prevent, reduce or better manage problems associated with alcohol and drug use in the workplace. “Training would further assist employee representatives to explain and respond to questions related to company policies regarding alcohol and drugs,” it states.

While the study by Lamprechts and Gooderis acknowledges that it is not easy to deal with employees who are problem substance abusers, they say occupational health professionals could play a greater role in the prevention and management of substance abuse among workers – notably through occupational physicians (OPs) or equivalents who are regularly in contact with the working population, mostly in a preventive medical setting.

“When discovering alcohol- or drug-related issues, OPs can provide appropriate advice and brief intervention, and can play an important role in the rehabilitation of workers. They can also take into account the work-related context in which substance abuse developed, for example the relationship with work stressors or shift work,” they maintain.

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SHEQ Management

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