Illicit Drug and Alcohol Use: The Underlying Causes of Unsafe Behavior
Organizations are challenged daily by one of the most common causes of workplace incidents; the unsafe behavior of people. The reasons for unsafe behaviour vary, and there are some factors, such as drug and alcohol use, that are directly linked to unsafe behavior. “The overwhelming cause of most industrial accident and injuries can be contributed to the unsafe acts of employees (Unsafe Acts - Human Behavior).” To reduce the occurrence of unsafe behavior, employers must address both the immediate and root causes behind them. This is not a one-off project, and what it requires is a long-term plan to address the “catalysts” that make workers perform unsafe acts. There are means by which organizations can address unsafe behaviour. Whether it’s side-effects from fatigue from pulling all-nighters with small babies, substance use or stress caused by financial problems, action should be taken so that they don’t have the chance to cause damage in the first place.
Opioid epidemicThe opioid epidemic in the US has brought a new series of risks to the workplace. Drugs and alcohol alter human behavior, and even when not used onsite they cause side-effects that can pose risks to workers’ safety. In low risk jobs these side effects have less of an effect; however, when it comes to high risk jobs, all possible dangers must be evaluated. Employees are not likely to approach superiors about their personal issues, particularly when it’s something as sensitive as illicit drug use - therefore a more systematic approach is needed. Misuse of opioids, drugs and other substances should not be taken lightly by anyone. Opioids killed more than 42,000 people in 2016, and 70% of the estimated 14.8 million Americans using illegal drugs are currently employed. According to an analysis by Quest Diagnostics, employee drug use is at its highest for a decade.
Safety, Illicit Drugs and AlcoholThe opioid epidemic in the US and the legalization of Marijuana (2015) in 26 states have raised questions about the impact drugs can have on workplaces and their safety. This increasing substance use has proven to reduce safety. Marijuana, opioids and non-alcoholic drugs are already a far more common cause for traffic incidents than alcohol. Some statistics reflect the nationwide increase in drug use and the risks they pose to our safety (Forbes). A study released by the Governors Highway Safety Association (2016), reveals that 44% of fatally-injured drivers tested positive for drugs and 36% for alcohol. Over half of the drug-affected drivers had marijuana, opioids or a combination of the two in their system. OSHA (The Occupational Safety and Health Administration) states that “Overdoses from the non-medical use of drugs or alcohol while on the job increased from 165 in 2015 to 217 in 2016, a 32-percent increase. Overdose fatalities have increased by at least 25 percent annually since 2012.”
Side-effects & After-effectsDifferent substances causes severe side-and after-effects and alters worker behavior. “Alcohol and drug use increase the risk of problems in the workplace such as absenteeism, presenteeism, low productivity and inappropriate behavior (BMA) .” Also, fatigue, poor decision-making and needless risk-taking are some of the most common symptoms of both alcohol and drug use.
- “Workers with alcohol problems were 2.7 times more likely than workers without drinking problems to have injury-related absences
- A hospital emergency department study showed that 35 percent of patients with an occupational injury were at-risk drinkers
- Breathalyzer tests detected alcohol in 16% of emergency room patients injured at work
- Analyses of workplace fatalities showed that at least 11% of the victims had been drinking
Prescription medicationThe problem with drug use doesn’t limit itself to illicit drugs. People react differently to prescription medication. Prescription opioids (used to treat moderate-to-severe pain) have created a nationwide addiction spiral. According to the National Safety Council, four out of five new heroin users started out by misusing prescription opioids. It is therefore essential to make sure workers are aware of the risks involved with opioid painkillers and that they know better than to share their personal opioid prescriptions with their colleagues, for example. Many users are unaware of the fact that opioids are as addictive as heroin and can cause dependence in a matter of days. EHS professionals can help fight the opioid crisis. Since opioid painkillers are being prescribed for workplace injuries, occupational injuries are one of the reasons workers get exposed to opioids. Occupational Health & Safety also holds the responsibility to protect their workforce from occupational exposure to these substances at work (Mark Ames). Addiction is not the only risk. Like other substances, prescription opioids have strong side effects: “Some of the hidden side-effects of opioid painkillers include rapidly developing addiction, withdrawal, constipation, permanent changes to brain chemistry, nausea, respiratory depression, increased sensitivity to pain, driving impairment and decreased sex drive (National Safety Council).” By addressing substance use, companies will not only be helping to fight the national crisis but will also benefit themselves. By reducing substance use, employers can expect to see reduced incident rates, higher productivity and better overall workplace culture.
Approaching alcohol and drug use at workThere are actions employers can take to reduce the use of impairing substances. Educating employees about the risks involved in substance use and the ways they jeopardize our safety is essential. Implementing drug-testing, having professional support services onsite, establishing wellness programs, and encouraging safe behavior across departments are great ways to approach the problem. To support those suffering from alcohol/drug abuse, or other health and/or personal problems, companies can offer services and programs, such as the Employee Assistance Program (EPA). According to NCADD, this program should offer: “…short-term counselling, assessment, and referral of employees with alcohol and drug abuse problems, emotional and mental health problems, marital and family problems, financial problems, dependent care concerns, and other personal problems that can affect the employee’s work.” Having counsellors from outside the workplace makes it easier for employees to approach and get help for their problems. In addition to providing professional support, organizations can implement drug-free workplace and other written substance abuse policies. This kinds of programs and policies have been proven successful:
- “alcohol and drug treatment has been proven to reduce healthcare costs,
- EAPs and drug-free workplace policies improve workplace productivity and morale, and decrease accidents, absenteeism, downtime and turnover, and
- Organizations with long-term programs have better health status and lower use of medical benefits amongst their workforce (NCADD). “