Drug and alcohol abuse is by no means a new problem. At various times throughout history there have been movements to address substance abuse and its effects. These range from the early temperance movements, prohibition in the United States, the banning of absinthe, the various campaigns against drug producers and traffickers, and the increasingly vigorous measures currently being taken against drinking and driving.
Over recent years, one important development, actively supported by the ILO, has been the growing realization in many countries that drug and alcohol abuse is an important workplace issue.
The issue of drug and alcohol abuse at the workplace has traditionally been met by a dismissive attitude and the reflex of trying to sweep the problem under the carpet, based more on moral precepts than a concern for the health issues involved. Yet, drug and alcohol abuse is not a problem which can be isolated from the workplace. Quite the contrary. It is now coming to be much more widely, although not by any means universally understood that substance abuse is harmful to both enterprises and workers, and is therefore prejudicial to national and international competitiveness.
Drug and alcohol abuse - An important factor in accidents, absenteeism and illness
Drug and alcohol abuse not only affects work performance in general, but also results in higher rates of absenteeism, accidents, illness and mortality, with all their related costs. It is therefore an important health and safety issue in its own right. Over recent years, studies have shown that:
*Absenteeism is two to three times higher for drug and alcohol users than for other employees;
*Employees with chemical dependence problems may claim three times as many sickness benefits and file five times as many workers' compensation claims;
*In many workplaces, 20 to 25 per cent of accidents at work involve intoxicated people injuring themselves and innocent victims;
*On-the-job supplies of drugs and alcohol account for 15 to 30 per cent of all accidents at work.
Drug and alcohol abuse - Even fairly low levels of consumption are detrimental to performance, quality and safety
As greater knowledge has been acquired over recent years, through the increased volume of research carried out on the subject, it has become increasingly evident that workplace problems associated with substance abuse are not confined to alcoholics and drug addicts.
This is particularly true in the case of alcohol. While, at the individual level, alcoholics and other heavy drinkers are the most likely to cause accidents, their numbers in the workplace are relatively small. In comparison, the relative risk of an individual moderate or occasional drinker causing a problem associated with the consumption of alcohol is much lower. However, in collective terms, simply because their numbers are much higher, moderate and occasional drinkers account for the largest proportion of alcohol-related problems in the workplace.
Further investigations have also confirmed that a relatively high level of performance impairment can occur after the consumption of even fairly low quantities of alcohol.
Most problem drinkers and drug users work
Another very important reason why the issue of drug and alcohol abuse cannot be isolated from the workplace is that so many problem drinkers and drug-takers work. The workforce is typically a reflection of the community in which the workers live. Inasmuch as alcohol and drug abuse are present in the community, it is highly likely that the workforce has a similar level of abuse.
The workplace is therefore a very significant channel for preventive and remedial action, with the potential to reach an extremely high proportion of workers with alcohol problems and drug users, as well as the members of their families. The workplace can therefore be a vital component of community programmes to change attitudes towards the consumption of alcohol and drugs.
Drug and alcohol abuse is a problem that employers, workers and their partners just cannot afford to ignore
Drug and alcohol abuse is prevalent almost everywhere, sparing very few countries and workplaces. It is a major contributory factor in accidents, absenteeism, health problems, theft, lower productivity and job loss.
For workers, substance abuse can result in deteriorating health, injury, disciplinary action, family problems, job loss, and therefore poverty and social deprivation.
For employers, substance abuse leads to safety problems affecting the enterprise, the workforce and the public at large, and it gives rise to increased costs, lower productivity and loss of competitive edge.
How Can it Be Prevented?
A comprehensive drug-free workplace program may be the best means of preventing, detecting, and dealing with substance abusers.
Such a program generally includes the following elements:
A written policy that is supported by top management, understood by a all employees, consistently enforced, and perfectly clear about what is expected of employees and the consequences of policy violations
A substance abuse prevention program with an employee drug education component that focuses not only on the dangers of drug and alcohol use but also on the availability of counseling and treatment
Training of managers, front-line supervisors, human resource personnel, medical staff, and others in identifying and dealing with substance abusers
An appropriate drug and alcohol testing component, designed to prevent the hiring of workers who use illegal drugs and—as part of a comprehensive program—provide early identification and referral to treatment for employees with drug or alcohol problems
An Employee Assistance Program (EAP)