It has been a long time since substance abuse programs became a normal part of the workplace. From random drug testing to Employee Assistance Programs, employers have made drug- and alcohol-free workplaces a key goal — and their efforts are clearly paying off. In my time in the safety field, I have never had to deal with a worker whose drug test came back positive.
While some workers may have initially been uneasy about efforts to crack down on substance abuse, most have come to realize that impaired co-workers are not only a threat to themselves. They endanger everyone on the jobsite, and by performing shoddy work, can even endanger the end-user of the product or space on which they work. No wonder subcontractors and individual workers have become less hesitant about calling attention to abuses they see or suspect.
In fact, the battle against workplace substance abuse has been so successful that it’s easy for companies to become complacent about their programs. But as with other aspects of jobsite safety, falling into complacency is a recipe for trouble. After all, simply having a program and having a program that is effective are not necessarily the same things.
That’s why it’s a good idea to evaluate your program periodically. Whether you perform that evaluation yourself or bring in an outside safety expert to give you an objective assessment, the approach should be very similar. You want to verify that your existing measures have been working, and you want to see if there are any gaps you need to address.
The best place to start is to review the paperwork associated with the policy. That includes the policy itself, any training and employee communications materials related to it, and the records of any inquiries, testing, and violations. Your policy may still be fine, but it’s entirely possible that taking a fresh look at it may spark ideas and improvements.
The next step is to have conversations with the people who are most affected by your policy: your employees. Your objective is to encourage open and honest observations. Do they think the policy is effective? Have they seen the benefits of it? If they became aware that a co-worker was abusing alcohol or drugs, would they be comfortable reporting that? Do they view the policy as something punitive, or do they see it as a positive effort designed to protect their well-being?
Make sure there are no gaps in your policy or its implementation. For example, I’ve seen some companies that allow new employees or contractors on the worksite for a couple days before submitting them to mandatory drug testing. Most often, it’s because something needs to be done quickly, and the companies don’t want to delay putting the new employee to work on it.
The inherent danger in that is that an impaired worker could just as easily get hurt on the first day as on the tenth. He or she could put another worker in harm’s way within the first hour on the jobsite. Your program will provide the greatest protection for everyone involved — and that includes the new employee — if you insist on testing before he or she picks up a tool or punches a clock.
On the other hand, if a week goes by and the new employee hasn’t been tested, that sends a message that the company’s drug testing policy is just for show. It says that you don’t take it seriously, so your workers won’t, either. Nor will they expect you to follow through on a positive test.
While your plan should be strict and insist on quick responses, also make sure it’s reasonable and doesn’t punish people unfairly. If an employee’s drug screen is positive, he or she should have an opportunity to respond. For example, a painkiller like Vicodin may show up in the test, but if the employee has a legitimate prescription from his or her doctor, there’s no need for discipline. (However, that might signal a need for some worker education, particularly if the medication in question could impact an employee’s use of machinery or other operations. You may need to assign the worker to an alternate task until the course of medicine has been completed and the doctor provides clearance.)
In addition, just because an employee appears to be intoxicated doesn’t mean that they are. As an example, when a diabetic’s blood sugar becomes too high, they may stagger a bit, and their breath may take on a peculiar fruity smell. Instead of discipline, they need medical attention. So make sure your program requires supervisors to investigate the situation before they take action.
By reviewing and refining your substance abuse policy, you’ll develop the confidence that your workers are being properly protected. And when they know that you’re serious about substance abuse, they’ll take your policy seriously and help you enforce it. That’s when everyone involved benefits.