Substance Abuse Problems in the Workplace

Substance Abuse Problems in the Workplace


As an unbiased condition, substance abuse is not limited to workers of certain industries and professions. Since the vast majority of people with substance abuse issues are, in fact, employed to some degree, it is entirely possible that addiction is present in your place of work.

There are numerous problems that can develop if there is substance abuse going on at a company. The safety and security of all employees is potentially compromised if just one person brings drugs or alcohol with them to work. Any danger prompted by workplace substance abuse could extend to clients and customers, as well as bystanders who may just be in the vicinity. Anyone can be affected, both directly and indirectly, by the actions of someone under the influence at work.

This article will cover the problems substance abuse presents in the workplace. Specific topics will include safety, productivity, financial costs, and the potential legal ramifications. While much of what will be discussed is applicable across different industries and professions, there will be some industry-specific issues.

The Effects on Productivity

When a person is under the influence of drugs or alcohol, their ability to function normally is compromised. The effects of the substance being abused acts as a filter, preventing the person to truly recognize any errors in their actions. They skip steps, work slowly, forget how something works, and generally make mistakes. Often, this can generate a domino effect for anyone whose tasks at work are connected to theirs. The first time it happens, it may not be at a severe enough level to be cause for concern or to have significant effect. However, that will not always be the case as things continue.

The earliest effects that may occur in regards to workplace substance abuse is on productivity. In many industries, time is a crucial component to the success of the business. Delays in production can be costly for a single business, even when substance abuse isn't an issue. Across the country, productivity delays due to workplace substance abuse can total billions of dollars in loss annually. That applies to instances of substance abuse in- and outside of the workplace, as an employee may use before starting their shift verses after.

Another way that productivity can be affected by substance abuse is through attendance. Many people with addiction will be prone to absenteeism or tardiness. They may take multiple sick days, often with a poor or weak excuse, in favor of their addiction. If a person is using at work, or is experiencing particularly intense symptoms of drug use, they may end up taking frequent and unscheduled breaks from their tasks. Many employers see unexplained breaks as a red flag for different issues, not just substance abuse. If you have a co-worker or employee who is taking frequent breaks and is prone to absenteeism, address the problem before it causes serious issues. Even if substance abuse isn't involved, you may be able to help them with whatever is going on.

  • Note: Employees who have attendance issues may not have substance abuse issues, but someone close to them might. The immediate family members of people with addiction are often affected by their loved one's substance abuse, especially if they live together and/or are the person's primary care giver. This can include spouses/partners, siblings, parents, and children. Many people are ashamed or embarrassed by the situation, and thus unwilling to explain the situation with management. It may also be a matter of pride, as some people may be afraid of looking weak or being pitied if the truth came out. Employers and managers should do what they can to ensure that there is a sense of trust in the workplace so any employee would be comfortable reaching out in such a situation.

Impact on Safety

Interested in learning more? Why not take an online Workplace Drug Use - An HR Guide course?

Quite possibly more of an issue than production loss when it comes to workplace substance abuse is safety. If a person's usage of drugs and alcohol causes concern for their personal safety, then it definitely has an impact when it is brought into a work environment. Across industries, safety is still a highly important issue that needs to be taken seriously. Organizations and agencies like the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) were created for the purpose of ensuring workplace safety and the continued compliance of businesses. Many of the safety regulations that are put in place by these groups end up being violated by people with substance abuse issues, resulting in strict penalties for the business.

The ways in which substance abuse can impact the safety of a business are similar to how that business' productivity can be impacted. Employees who are under the influence at work are impaired mentally and physically. They are unable to work as efficiently as they would while sober, and can easily make mistakes. Some of these mistakes can have devastating consequences, compromising the safety of those around them. Workplace accident rates have been known to increase when substance abuse is present in some way. The injured party in these accidents isn't always the person with the addiction, although they have a noticeably higher chance of being injured than their sober peers. Even when they are injured as a result of their actions while under the influence, the nature of the accident(s) they've caused could have much worse results for their peers.

Workplace fatalities as a result of compromised safety also tend to increase when substance abuse is involved. Studies on workplace safety have found that, of workers who died in work-related accidents in the United States, around 10-20% tested positive for drugs or alcohol. Investigations that are opened when there is a workplace fatality will often consider the involvement of substance abuse as a possible cause. The involvement of drugs and alcohol in all workplace injuries and fatalities is believed to be around 35%.

Financial Costs

The damage from substance abuse-related instances at work is incredibly expensive. Beyond just the cost of production delays mentioned earlier in the lesson, there is also the potential costs in damaged equipment, insurance coverage, legal fees, and federal fines. A single accident can wrack up quite a hefty bill for a business:

  • Insurance--Most businesses will invest in an insurance plan to protect their company in the event of accidents and damage. While this is often money well spent, insurance isn't going to cover all of the damage incurred in a workplace accident. Depending on the extent of the coverage and what exactly was damaged, employers may be stuck paying for repairs and replacements out of their own pockets. There's also health insurance costs; employees with substance abuse problems tend to have higher medical costs due to the effects of their drug or alcohol usage, around $400-$500 more per year or more.

  • Equipment--Due to their altered state, workplace drug and alcohol users are unable to properly operate their equipment and may damage it. This misuse can result in the need for minor repairs all the way up to a full replacement of the item. The equipment used in certain industries can be incredibly expensive just to repair, let alone replace any part of it. This doesn't even include instances where a piece of equipment was at the center of a substance abuse-related accident, and was rendered unusable as a result.

  • Fines--As mentioned previously, OSHA and other agencies set workplace regulations for industries and businesses all over the country. In the event that a violation of one of these regulations is found and then reported to OSHA, the business will often receive a fine. The actions and behavior of an addict in the workplace can result in violations of these federal regulations, which employers may not be aware of until after it has been reported. Repeated violations by an employee with addiction in the workplace can add up, with their employer (literally) paying the price.

  • Legal Fees--Occasionally, when there is an accident in the workplace, an investigation is opened to determine the cause. In many cases, those affected will seek financial compensation for any medical bills and lost wages. They may submit a workman's comp claim or, depending on the findings of the investigation, file a lawsuit against the responsible parties. For addiction-related accidents, this applies to the person with the addiction. However, their employer and the business may be included as well, especially if there is evidence that administrators were aware of the substance abuse. The legal fees of handling such cases can be significant, even without the inclusion of financial restitution for the victim. In the event that an employee with substance abuse issues is fired, they may file a lawsuit against their employer. Those who are currently in treatment or recovery for substance abuse and addiction are covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act, and therefore has some legal protections.

Even when an employee with substance abuse issues does not cause delays or accidents due to their addiction, there are still some associated costs. Turnover rates are noticeably high amongst working addicts, possibly due to attendance issues. Firing an employee for workplace failures, finding a replacement, and then training the new employee each comes with its own cost.

Legal Issues

As mentioned above, employees with a history of substance abuse issues do have some protections under law. They cannot be discriminated against due to their addiction, so long as they are not actively using drugs or alcohol. This, however, does not mean there are no legal issues that can be generated by substance abuse in the workplace.

Some of the legal issues that substance abuse generates for employers have been mentioned earlier in this lesson. These include federal violations and fees for safety regulations, and lawsuits from victims of workplace-related accidents. There can also be legal issues in the workplace based on any criminal violations the person abusing drugs and alcohol commits.

  • Theft--In order to pay for their addiction, many users will often steal from those around them.Items are then sold for cash or traded for the substance itself. This behavior isn't just limited to family members and friends, but can extend to co-workers and employers. Some stick to theft of their co-workers' personal belongings, usually items that are left unattended in employee spaces like a break room. Others may steal items from the business' inventory or directly from unaware customers. The owners of the stolen items may press charges against the person should they be caught.

  • Underage Access or Use--Teens and young adults are one of the largest demographics of substance abuse, so it is not unusual for there to be legal ramifications for underage users. Employees under the age of 21 who work in food and hospitality professions tend to have some restrictions as to the handling of alcohol, but will still have some degree of access to it. This can be problematic if those employees have substance abuse issues, as they can fuel their addiction through their workplace. Failure by employers to monitor the alcohol access of underage employees can result in some penalties. It may even be viewed as contributing to the delinquency of minor or underage person if the employer was also aware of the employee's substance abuse issues.

  • Possession, Manufacturing, and Distribution--As most abused substances are also illegal or controlled through the Controlled Substances Act, their very presence on a person can be a criminal offense. Many addicts are penalized for possession of controlled or illegal substances, but they may have additional charges. Some users will also distribute or deal drugs as a means of bringing in additional income and access to fuel their addiction. Others may be producing the very drugs they are using, such as growing marijuana or making meth. There have been instances where users of illicit substances have used their workplace for any of the three: storage for their drugs, a central location for dealing, and a secured space for manufacturing. Employers may be unaware until the employee is caught doing any of the three on company property, and can be penalized as an accessory if they are aware but do nothing about it.

While the legal implications affect the employee with substance abuse issues more than it does their employer, they can leave their mark. Charges or citations, for any involvement they may have had should they have been aware and contributed to the person's addiction. The arrest of an employee at work may generate some bad publicity for the business, especially if there are customers present at the time. Other employees, feeling that they are unsafe, may file complaints against the company. The response to the situation itself may end up being one of the biggest problems involving substance abuse in the workplace.