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Drug and Alcohol Awareness on the Job Site

It was a beautiful spring day when the call came in. “Jess, we need you out here. I’ve already called 911. One of the guys just died in the port-a-john. I think it’s an overdose. He’s a young guy who seemed healthy, and there’s a bottle of Percocet on the floor by his feet.”

Yes, this is a real call I received several years ago at a company I used to work for. The fact is, drug and alcohol abuse has impacted almost everyone in the U.S. to some degree. Let’s take a poll. Raise your hand if you or a member of your immediate family has had to deal with a drug and/or alcohol problem. OK, now raise your hand if a member of your immediate family or any of your first cousins has had to deal with a drug and/or alcohol problem.

You see, this isn’t a they have a problem” sort of problem – it’s a “we have a problem” sort of problem. It’s the kind of problem that we need to talk about for the sake of you and your family, your company, our industry and our nation.

How do Drugs and Alcohol Affect the Workplace?
The National Drug-Free Workplace Alliance found that 11.6% of construction workers have an illicit drug problem and 16.5% are heavy alcohol users. Additionally, the National Safety Council reported that nearly 25% of people indicated that they took part in binge drinking during the past month. Perhaps the most eye-opening statistic is that many addiction recovery organizations report that approximately 70% of the estimated 14.8 million Americans who abuse drugs and alcohol are employed.

So, how do drug and alcohol abuse impact safety and production at work? Here are some examples.

  • A worker who is late or doesn’t show up, or who demonstrates poor/inefficient performance due to a hangover or withdrawal, can lead to other workers using shortcuts or doing lower-quality work because they have to pick up the slack for the worker with the problem.
  • An affected employee may make poor decisions because they aren’t mentally fit for duty, which can lead to performance and safety issues.
  • A higher turnover rate – due to affected employees seeking treatment, being terminated or quitting – creates a need to train new employees, which impacts crew efficiency and safety.
  • Workers with addictions are more likely to have trouble with supervisors and other workers, which can lower crew morale.

Some on-the-job signs and symptoms that a worker has a drug and/or alcohol problem include the following.

  • Taking long breaks and lunches.
  • Having a pattern of safety incidents.
  • Making an increased number of medical claims.
  • Drowsiness and/or slurred speech.
  • Smelling like a brewery/distillery.
  • Demonstrating lack of concentration.
  • Changes in mood/attitude, changes in personal grooming habits, and changes in the body, such as bloodshot eyes, dilated pupils and drastic weight change.
  • Asking to borrow money.
  • Not dressing for the season.
  • Avoiding people.

You must realize these aren’t just abstract things; these are the contents of someone’s addicted reality. If you suspect someone has a problem with drugs or alcohol, intervention is needed. That intervention takes guts, and the only way you’ll be able to make that call is if you care enough about that person, their family and everyone on the job site to overcome your fear.

Profile of an Addict
Recently at our company, my colleague Justin Guerrero and I put together a composite profile that depicts what’s often going through an addict’s mind. The theme is “I’ve Got Bigger Problems Than Worrying About This Job – I’m Fighting for My Survival.” The addict in the profile states, “Up until now, I’ve been managing this problem reasonably well. As a matter of fact, until now, I haven’t even considered it a problem. I’ve been able to make excuses to my boss when I show up late to work or call in sick, and I’ve been able to make excuses to my wife when I get home late. Because I manage the money, my wife doesn’t know that I didn’t make the car payment this month. Working these long hours and staying out late to feed my addiction have been catching up with me. I’m not sure how much longer I can go on like this, but what I do know is that I’m not going to stop without help, and I’m not going to ask for help. Asking for help means I have to tell the truth – beginning with telling it to myself – and telling the truth means all of my lies will be exposed, which means I’m going to have to face my guilt and shame, and I just can’t do that today. Maybe tomorrow.”

But what if today is the day? If you are the one who is struggling with addiction, what should you do to address it with your employer?

  • First, report the problem to your supervisor.
  • The supervisor should then contact human resources.
  • Policies vary by company, but most organizations will work with you to find you the help you need to recover and get back to work.

The steps are similar if you suspect a co-worker has a drug and/or alcohol problem. First, report the problem to your supervisor, who will then contact human resources to determine next actions. 

A Legal Requirement
It also is important to remember that section 382.603 of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations requires employers with CDL drivers to provide one hour of training on alcohol abuse and one hour of training on controlled substance abuse. The FMCSR training is not mandatory for non-FMCSR drug and alcohol programs, but it may be required by your state rules. Training will help to ensure that supervisors – when faced with reports of reasonable suspicion – act reasonably and properly with respect and due process.

Drug and alcohol abuse can cause problems in every part of a person’s life and can be especially problematic on job sites – like ours – where safety is of critical importance. Learn the signs and symptoms of abuse. A caring co-worker or supervisor should not only have the skills to recognize drug and alcohol problems but the duty to recognize them and help struggling colleagues. If you have a problem or believe one of your co-workers might, now is the time to speak up and address the issue before even more trouble arises. 

About the Author: Jesse Hardy, CSP, CIT, CUSP, is vice president of HSE for Supreme Industries, a Harwinton, Connecticut-based contractor that specializes in right-of-way clearing, building access roads, drilling and pole pulling.

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