Sandy Says: Why Coffee Is My Drug of Choice

Nov. 1, 2009
Johns Hopkins University estimates the economic burden of substance abuse to the U.S. economy at $414 billion each year, which is why more companies than ever are turning to drug testing to protect their property and their employees.

When I first started out in my career, we weren't quite at “Mad Men” levels of workplace drinking and smoking, but we were close. A coworker, distracted and hung over from the night before, routinely set his desk on fire. Sales executives took clients out to lunches that often included a martini or scotch or two.

A fond memory of those days involves a coworker drinking too much at the company Christmas party, dancing on the bar and then sitting on the CEO's lap and telling him to get lost (I'm paraphrasing here) and, miracle of miracles, not losing his job over it.

Those days of open acceptance of substance abuse are over, and for good reason.

The American Council for Drug Education states that more than 70 percent of substance abusers hold jobs. Substance abusers on the job are 10 times more likely to miss work, 3.6 times more likely to be involved in on-the-job accidents and 5 times more likely to injure themselves or another in the process. They also are less productive and have health care costs 3 times higher than non-abusers.

Historically, young adults aged 18 to 25 (19.6 percent) have had the highest rates of substance abuse. Interestingly, the rate of substance abuse among those aged 50 to 59 in on the rise. Their overall rate of past-month illicit drug use increased from 2.7 percent in 2002 to 4.6 percent in 2008. Among those aged 55 to 59, current illicit drug use showed an increase from 1.9 percent in 2002 to 5 percent in 2008.

The American Council for Drug Education says that employers should be on the lookout for these symptoms:

  • Frequent, prolonged and often unexplained absences
  • Involvement in accidents both on and off the job
  • Erratic work patterns and reduced productivity
  • Indifference to personal hygiene
  • Overreaction to real or imagined criticism
  • Such overt physical signs as exhaustion or hyperactivity, dilated pupils, slurred speech or an unsteady walk


An organization's philosophy concerning alcohol and drugs sets the tone for its drug-free workplace policy and program. Some organizations focus on detection and apprehension of substance abusers in the workplace and have policies that apply a strong law enforcement model that treats employees who use drugs as criminals. Others focus on performance and emphasize deterrence and assistance, because they view alcohol and drug use as causing impairment of otherwise capable employees. Experts agree that the most effective drug-free workplace programs strike a balance between these two philosophies. They send a strong, clear message and, at the same time, encourage employees to seek assistance if they are struggling with alcohol or drug problems.

Many employers are turning to drug-testing programs (some, such as those covered under by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration of the Department of Transportation, are required to conduct employee drug testing) to stem the tide of substance abuse and reduce risk in the workplace.

Marianne Karg, vice president of Mobile Medical Corp., which offers a number of workplace health services including drug testing, suggests that employers consider the following when developing a drug-free workplace program:

  • What is the purpose of the policy and program?
  • Who is covered by the policy?
  • When does the policy apply?
  • What behavior is prohibited?
  • What types of drugs will be tested for?
  • What are the consequences of violating the policy?
  • Will there be return-to-work agreements?
  • Who is responsible for enforcing the policy?
  • How is the policy communicated to employees?
  • What type of assistance is available to employees needing help?

Many employers hesitate to implement drug-free workplace policies because they do not want to involve themselves in employees' personal lives or because they are concerned about the legalities of such programs. Don't worry, says Karg.

“The reasons to implement a drug-free workplace program far outweigh the reasons not to,” Karg advises. “These programs exist to protect the health and safety of all employees, customers and the public. They also help to safeguard employer assets from theft and destruction, and maintain product quality and company integrity and reputation.”

Send an e-mail with your thoughts to [email protected].

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