Conference Looks at Substance Use, Abuse in the Workplace

Employers' alcohol- and substance-abuse policies tend to "criminalize" alcohol use in the minds of employees and management a tactic that consultant Tom Walsh argues is counterproductive.

Walsh, the former worldwide corporate safety and health director for United Parcel Service and now the president of Safety Cost Improvement, believes many employers tend to look at alcohol misuse as a moral behavioral problem as opposed to a disease.

Walsh asserted that many companies fail when it comes to creating policies that address alcohol misuse in the workplace.

"Having a [substance-abuse] policy shouldn't be a hindrance," Walsh said, while speaking at a forum titled "Alcohol-Impaired Driving: Risk Reduction Strategies for the Workplace" in Baltimore. The forum was part of a 2-day conference hosted by the Network of Employers for Traffic Safety (NETS).

Walsh said many company policies that employ identification techniques through testing such as reasonable suspicion and random testing are fruitless, as they potentially identify employees with an alcohol problem only after they have had a car accident or have sustained an injury off the job.

Other common pitfalls for employers' workplace substance-abuse policies, according to Walsh, include:

  • Penalizing employees who self-identify themselves with an alcohol problem;
  • Failing to fund health care for treatment;
  • Failing to partner with union representatives;
  • Failing to educate employees on the dangers of alcohol use on and off the job; and
  • Failing to use health risk assessments.

Walsh pointed to studies that suggest workplace alcohol use and impairment and alcohol's impact on employers' bottom line are significant.

A study released earlier this year by the University of Buffalo Research Institute on Addictions estimates that 19.2 million workers about 15 percent of the U.S. work force either uses or is impaired by alcohol on the job. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, alcohol use causes $33 to $68 billion in losses to the workplace, with absenteeism estimated to be four to eight times greater among alcohol users.

Early Screening and Intervention Good for ROI

Eric Goplerund, a clinical psychologist and research professor at George Washington University Medical Center, told attendees that one of the biggest challenges in curbing alcohol use in the workplace is that few employers have early screening and brief intervention programs that can identify employees or potential new hires who may have an alcohol problem.

According to Goplerund, investing in these types of programs would be a smart choice for their bottom lines.

Many employers have disease management programs, and it is proven that they make $2 to $2.50 for every $1 invested, Goplerund said. Similar programs geared toward alcohol abuse in the workplace "produce the same ballpark figure."

Goplerund: Construction Workers Rate High In Alcohol Misuse

Employers in certain industries should be more wary of workplace alcohol misuse than others, according to Goplerund, who cited a 2002 National Survey on Drug Use and Health that said construction workers have the highest incidence of on-the-job alcohol use, followed by the wholesale and retail sectors.

Goplerund explained that the construction industry is made up of a younger and predominately male work force. Goplerund pointed to the study issued by the University of Buffalo's Research Institute on Addictions that found workplace alcohol use and impairment was more prevalent among men compared to women. Also, the study found that working under the influence of alcohol or with a hangover was more prevalent among younger workers compared to older workers.

In addition, Goplerund surmised the reason why the retail industry has a high rate of workplace alcohol use is because the retail workers particularly those in bars and restaurants are around alcohol all the time.

"Many of those in retail work in restaurants and are paid to be around alcohol," he said.

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