Spot And Stop Substance Abuse In The Workplace

Filed Under: HR, Toolbox Articles

Whether your organization operates in an office or on a shop floor, no matter the type of workplace, safety is paramount to keep productivity up and your risks low. And one increasingly common factor contributing to unsafe environments is substance abuse. In fact, 10 percent of workers have a problem with drugs or alcohol.

When an employee is under the influence, the effects can not only impact their own health, but potentially create hazards for others at work as well by impairing their judgment, coordination, reactions, and concentration that can cause injuries and even fatalities. And that’s not all: substance abuse can also lead to theft and other crimes in the workplace.

Laws Governing Use 

To help organizations run a substance-free workplace, the Drug-Free Workplace Act of 1988 provides specific guidelines. However, the act only applies to a narrow segment of employers: organizations that have contracts with the federal government totaling $100,000 or more as well as any size organization that receives federal grants.

For those covered under the law, the Drug-Free Workplace Act requires covered organizations to:

  • Prepare and distribute a formal drug-free workplace policy statement that describes the prohibition of controlled substances in the workplace and specifies consequences for violations;
  • Establish a drug-free awareness program;
  • Ensure employees know their reporting obligations if they are convicted of a drug violation involving conduct occurring in the workplace.

Another federal law that affects employers with workers who are using drugs or alcohol is the OSH Act. Under this law, employers have a duty to provide employees a workplace “free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm.” While not required by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the agency recognizes that impairment by drug or alcohol use is an avoidable workplace hazard and supports comprehensive drug-free workplace programs as well as training and education.

Steps To An Effective Policy

An effective substance abuse policy can reduce the risk to an impaired employee as well as coworkers and others like customers. When developing a policy, consider including common elements such as provisions that: 

  • Prohibit the possession, use or sale of drugs or alcohol;
  • Prevent employees from working under the influence;
  • Provide assistance for employees;
  • Impose discipline for those who refuse help.

Once you develop a policy, be sure to post it and distribute it to all in the workplace along with resources available to employees to get help. If you find out that an employee has violated the policy, it’s important to follow the consequences outlined for all employees fairly and consistently.

Spotting Signs Of Abuse

Abuse doesn’t discriminate. Workers with all different backgrounds, skills, and positions can be users. That’s why it’s important for supervisors to watch for signs of a problem.

While most employees who use drugs or alcohol will try to hide their behavior from their coworkers, there are often signs that may indicate an employee has a problem, including:

  • Changes in personal appearance or hygiene;
  • Excessive tardiness or absenteeism;
  • Poor concentration that results in accidents, near misses, or errors;
  • Changes in behavior, such as becoming argumentative or defensive;
  • Inexplicable drop in work efficiency;
  • Heavy use of breath sweeteners.

When an employee’s performance or behavior falls below outlined expectations, schedule a time to talk with the employee in private and give them an opportunity to respond to your observations. Re-emphasize established standards and warn about possible discipline if the problem continues. You’ll also want to document any problems in performance as well as any actions taken or recommendations while maintaining the employee’s confidentiality. By recording incidents, you’ll be better able to recognize patterns of behavior and increase the possibility of early intervention.

Provide Help

When you speak with an employee about substance abuse, it’s important to offer resources that may be available through the workplace or in the community so they can get the help they need such as an employee assistance program, health plan benefits, wellness promotion program, and helplines.  

Karyn Rhodes is vice president/director at Complete Payroll Solutions. For more information, email


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