Alcohol in the Workplace

           More than 7 percent of employees drink during the workday in America and 15 percent are directly affected by alcohol at work, either by drinking on the job, coming to work already drunk, or trying to work with a hangover.

The University at Buffalo’s Research Institute on Addictions recently announced these results in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol. Demographically, the study found that workplace alcohol use and impairment was more common among men than women, younger workers than older workers, and unmarried workers than married workers.  Occupations with the highest rates were management, sales, arts/entertainment/sports/media, food preparation and serving, and building and grounds maintenance. 

Since alcohol slows down an employee’s reaction time and impairs decision-making, the consequences in the workplace can range from unproductive to lethal.

On the lethal end of the spectrum, 40 percent of industrial fatalities and 47 percent of industrial injuries can be linked to alcohol consumption and alcoholism, according to the Department of Labor. The University of Buffalo study blamed alcohol, drugs or both for 19 percent of on-the-job fatalities.

On the loss of productivity end, the DOL says alcohol and drug abuse has been estimated to cost American businesses roughly 81 billion dollars in lost productivity in just one year—37 billion due to premature death and 44 billion due to illness. Of these combined costs, 86 percent are attributed to drinking.

Obviously, if your business is an industrial facility involving heavy equipment, any employee under the influence of alcohol during the workday is a serious liability.

But even in a more sedate environment like an insurance office, a law firm, or a bank, employee drinking can cost the business substantially. For example, if you send your firm runner to Office Depot for copy paper and on the way he is involved in an car wreck while driving drunk on company business, you will face the high costs of litigation from the injured parties.

In the Panhandle of Texas, I still encounter many employers who do not perform any drug or alcohol testing of their employees. The tests are inexpensive, reliable and legal for private employers, so I am always surprised when an employer doesn’t take advantage of testing.

Another surprise is the more tolerant attitude towards drinking over drug use in local workplaces. The consequences of both can be so severe that I encourage employers to try to correct both problems identically, which means a well-written substance abuse policy and regular drug and alcohol testing.

            I believe all job offers should be conditional on the successful applicant passing a drug test. Once the employee is working at the company, it is appropriate for the employer to test segments of the workforce randomly and specific employees after any kind of on-the-job accident or whenever the supervisor has a reasonable suspicion that an employee is impaired by alcohol or drugs.

            Identifying and documenting objective observations about an employee’s behavior and performance to support a test for reasonable suspicion of alcohol use at work can be a difficult but necessary part of every supervisor’s job.

            The Department of Labor notes these as some workplace problems that are common among substance abusers:

·         Inconsistent work quality

·         Poor concentration

·         Increased absenteeism

·         Unexplained disappearances from the workplace

·         Disregard for safety

·         Deterioration of personal appearance

·         Complaints and excuses of vaguely defined illnesses

·         Blaming others for own problems and short-comings

The DOL list doesn’t even include the signs that most employers use to form a reasonable suspicion that an employee is under the influence of alcohol at work: the smell of alcohol on the employee, slurred speech, irrational anger and loud, boorish behavior.

If an employee exhibits more than one of these signs of alcohol or drug abuse, drive the employee to a testing facility immediately. Obviously don’t let the employee drive himself.

If you have a strongly worded substance abuse policy informing employees that drug and alcohol use and influence are prohibited in your workplace, then you can choose to discipline the employee if the test comes back positive.

Some employers give the employee unpaid time off for rehabilitation and a second chance at employment. I have a friend who was given the gift of a second chance by a sympathetic employer, went to AA, got sober, remained sober and became that company’s most loyal, hard-working employee for 10 more years.

Other employers choose not to risk the liability to which a drunk employee exposes the company and therefore choose to fire anyone who tests positive. Whichever you decide to do as an employer, be consistent in your treatment of each employee to avoid any claim of discrimination.


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