Managing A Drug-free Workplace: Why You Must and Why You Should
by Nancy Rathbun Scott
If you think you don't have a drug abuse problem in your workplace, think again, says Robert Stutman, formerly with the Drug Enforcement Agency and now a private consultant.
In speaking to an industry group, Stutman said that prospective employees living in the American culture bring a shocking likelihood of alcohol or drug abuse with them. Moreover, the drug problem is getting worse, the abusers are not identifiable by class, color, intelligence, locale or personality, and businesses today can expect to be affected by the problem in a major way.
On the national average, 17 percent of employees are substance abusers. That means they either are using illegal drugs, or alcohol is affecting the way they do their job, or they are abusing legal drugs. And, don't think that drugs like crack cocaine are the big problem. "LSD is once again the fastest growing drug for kids under 15 and there are more deaths resulting from the use of valium and alcohol taken together than from all deaths resulting from cocaine and heroine combined," Stutman notes.
Marijuana-thought to be one of the more innocent illegal drugs-is particularly hazardous to people who operate machinery. "Post accident drug testing reveals a high percentage of marijuana positives. Why? Marijuana causes a lessening of pressure on the optic nerves, and thus a loss of depth perception. And, while a joint may leave the user high for only about four hours, the loss of depth perception lingers for 24 to 48 hours. That means somebody who smoked a joint on Saturday night can still be affected on Monday morning-an effect that has serious implications for people driving trucks and fork lifts or deciding where their own hands are in relation to dangerous machinery."
Construction workers have the highest rate of substance abuse with 33 percent exhibiting an abuse problem. People in the financial world-brokers and bankers, for instance-are the next most affected group. "Both of these professions are male dominated, stress-related and characterized by employees under the age of 45," Stutman says.
Serious Implications for Your Business
The overall implications of substance abuse to industry are staggering, Stutman says. For one thing, the 17 percent of workers with an abuse problem cause consequences far beyond their number.
Substance abusers are three to eight times as likely to be absent from work, for example. While on the job, they operate at just 67 percent production capacity. They also are responsible for 40 percent of pilferage and employee theft and they use medical benefits at 5 times the rate of non-abusers, driving up premiums.
Direct costs aren't the only danger to employees. "You have not only a direct measurable loss, your also must consider the relationship between litigation and substance abuse."
An employee may wonder how he can be responsible for the actions of an employee over whom there is no control. The courts see it differently. Pointing to the Exxon/Valdez oil spill, Stutman stresses that the second largest punitive damages in history-$5 billion-were related to substance abuse. "Beware the treble damages," he says.
If a substance abusing employee causes an accident, employers should be prepared to demonstrate what they did to make sure the public was protected. That's why, if alcohol was served at a company function, the employer is buying a problem. "If you own the booze, you own all the negative consequences of it. The court will want to know if the alcohol was consumed at a work-related function; if the employee was breaking any rules by drinking at work; whether the company encouraged consumption of alcohol by picking up the tab; and whether the company received any measurable benefit from the function at which alcohol was served. Think about the Christmas party. In most states, the Christmas party is considered a business-related function."
What's an employer to do? "A well-written substance abuse policy will virtually guarantee that you will never lose a punitive damage case," says Stutman.
Set Up a Substance Abuse Program Now
Ninety-seven percent of Fortune 1000 companies now have substance abuse programs in place and 65 percent of medium companies do. That means small businesses with no policy or where substance abuse testing is not enforced are attracting a higher percentage of employees with a substance abuse problem.
A serious policy obviously is the best defense, but what does one look like?
A well-crafted substance abuse program includes a detailed, written plan that considers every eventuality in advance. The policy lays out rules for employees regarding the use of drugs or alcohol and establishes standard, automatic procedures for all incidents. Such a policy can run to dozens of pages, and will define, for instance, what it means for an employee to come to work under the influence of drugs or alcohol. "Never use the word 'impaired,'" Stutman advises. "Nobody has an acceptable definition of impaired. Instead, say, 'If you have above x-level of drugs or alcohol in your system, you are automatically under the influence of alcohol.'"
Effective testing is the second part of a good substance abuse program. The question is when to test to best protect yourself and your employees. "Pre-employment drug testing is more an intelligence test than a drug test," Stutman jokes. "The most efficient is post-accident testing. So make sure that you define accident ahead of time. And get your first-line supervisors to buy into your policy."
Stutman offers additional advice about drug testing:
A. Always use a urine collection procedure certified by the Department of Transportation to establish the "forensic chain of custody."
B. Always use a laboratory certified by the National Institute of Drug Abuse. "2200 labs do testing, but only 60 or 70 are certified by NIDA. These will indemnify you against errors."
C. Always do two tests: a preliminary screening called EMIT, which is 97 percent accurate; and a secondary test called GCMS, which is 100 percent accurate and confirms the first.
5. Always hire the services of a Medical Review Officer-an MRO-to review the drug results before you see them, a procedure that virtually indemnifies the employee from being sued and losing.
"A good substance abuse program costs you money up front, but gives you years and years of payback with virtually no work involved," Stutman concludes.
Nancy Rathbun Scott is a business writer living in the Washington, D.C. area. She can be reached at Visit for more information.

@2004 Nancy Scott