Workplace Substance Abuse Programs and Workers Compensation

Unfortunately, substance abuse plagues our society. Your workforce is a small segment of that society, so it stands to reason that you have employed, are currently employing or may employ a substance abuser in the future. In fact, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration it is estimated that 75 percent of adults who admit to current illicit drug use (at least once per month) are actively employed either full-time or part-time. This number represents more than 12.4 million individuals. Although those statistics are eye-opening, the problem of substance abuse is particularly distressing within the context of workers’ compensation because several studies have shown that a disproportionately large percentage (approaching 50%) of workers’ compensation claims are related to the use of alcohol or illegal drugs in the workplace. Furthermore, the National Institute on Drug Abuse reports that employed drug abusers cost their employers about twice as much in medical and workers’ compensation claims as their drug-free coworkers.

Certainly this data provides the evidence that substance abuse is an enormous and pervasive workers’ compensation issue. But that’s not the whole picture. There are plenty of statistics that point toward substance abuse as a cause for increased employee turnover, absenteeism, violence, decreased productivity and a host of other ills. Each of these can contribute to stress on the employees who do not abuse drugs and can make them more likely to incur injuries at work.

No Program and No Problems – Think Again: Many business owners and managers are blind to the near inevitability that the problem of substance abuse will surface within their company. They are equally blind to the reality that substance abuse can have a direct, negative and long-lived impact on their workers’ compensation premiums.

Too often owners or managers operate with a false perspective regarding their workforce. For example many will offer the statement…I know each and every one of my employees, and I know none of them are drug abusers; or, I have known them their whole life and they came from a good family. Another false assumption is their ability to discern whether or not an employee is abusing a substance or is under the influence. Consider that many parents, spouses, close friends and others who have more frequent and more intimate interaction with an individual than does the employer, have been shocked to learn that someone close to them has a substance abuse problem. Many are also shocked to learn just how long the problem went undetected.

Although there are certainly signs and symptoms that point to substance abuse, the presence of some of these behaviors could be the product of stress. Others may be symptoms of depression or a host of other problems. Relying upon mere observation as a means of detection can be misguided and fail to deter substance abusers from seeking employment within your organization. Incidentally, where do you suspect that a substance abuser will seek employment – at an organization that screens its employees or at one that does not?

The Solution – A Drug-Free Workplace Program: Many people automatically associate a drug-free workplace program with drug-screening. But there’s more. While drug-screening is important, a drug-free workplace program generally includes five components.

1) Written Policy: A written policy typically defines what behavior is prohibited, when drug-testing will be conducted, how the policy will be enforced, and what will occur if the policy is violated. It may also address issues such as confidentiality, searches of persons or property, and reporting of drug related convictions. Many times a written drug-free workplace program also identifies how and when the policy is to be communicated to employees.

2) Supervisor Training: This component is essential. At a minimum, this training should familiarize supervisors with their specific responsibilities in implementing the drug-free workplace policy. Additionally, it should train supervisors to recognize and deal with employees who have job performance problems that could be related to substance abuse.

3) Employee Education: Just as supervisor training is essential to an effective drug-free workplace program, so is employee education. The purpose of employee education is to familiarize employees with the organization’s drug-free workplace program, to provide general awareness education about the dangers of alcohol and drug abuse, and to make employees aware of the types and sources of assistance that may be available.

4) Drug Screening: There are six primary triggers for drug screening and each serves a valid purpose, which include pre-placement, random, reasonable suspicion, post-accident, return to duty and follow-up.

5) Employee Assistance: This activity is either paid for by the organization or the cost is deferred to the employee, but it directs employees to substance abuse counselors where they can receive professional assistance. The goal is to rehabilitate the employee and salvage his/her human capital, for themselves and for the organization.

Overcoming Obstacles: The benefits of implementing a drug-free workplace program are obvious. However, many employers are discouraged to the point of inaction because they fear that implementing a drug-free workplace program is too costly, too difficult or too risky. The reality is that none of these things should stand in the way of implementing a program.

For employers who are discouraged by the anticipated cost of implementing a drug-free workplace program, a stronger case can be made for the exact opposite. Failing to implement a drug-free workplace program is where the cost really lies. Employers who fail to implement a program eliminate the chance of getting a drug-free workplace credit from their workers’ compensation insurance carrier. In many cases that premium credit alone will more than cover the cost of the entire drug-free workplace program. But beyond that, employers who do not actively confront the threat of drug abuse in the workplace increase the risk of employee injuries, theft, workplace violence, absenteeism, employee turnover and a myriad of other problems that can erode the company’s bottom-line.

For employers who are discouraged from implementing a drug-free workplace program because they are apprehensive about its complexity, they have quite a number of options at their disposal. The most exhaustive source is the Department of Labor web site (www.dol.gov/elaws/drugfree.htm), which provides a step by step explanation of program development, implementation and subsequent management. It even provides a template for writing a site specific program policy, etc.

Lastly, for employers who are concerned about the risk of having employee drug-screening challenged in a court of law, they should rest in the knowledge that the courts consistently rule in favor of employee drug-screening that is based upon procedures that are clear, fair, consistent and communicated in a written policy statement.

Summary: Substance abuse occurs in the general population, the very population from which you hire your employees. If you don’t want substance abusing employees then you must protect your company. The best method of achieving this goal is to implement a drug-free workplace program. It is a “high priority” from two perspectives!