Drugs in the workplace can be responsible for unsafe behaviour.

Unsafe human behaviour happens daily. Lack of focus, human factors, blame culture … The list of reasons goes on.

Above all, unsafe human behaviour is a safety risk.

Get the infographic: Drugs in the Workplace Facts and Stats »

Drugs in the workplace are increasingly behind unsafe behaviour. The US is in an opioid epidemic, and the UK has the highest opioid use in Europe.

However, employers and EHS professionals can help eradicate drugs in the workplace, creating a healthy and safe working environment.

This blog post looks at how drugs in the workplace affects safety, how to spot drug use, and how to create a drug-free working environment. Let's dive in.

Drugs in the Workplace Facts and Stats

The US is currently in the thick of an opioid epidemic. In 2017, an estimated 1.7 million people living in the US abused prescription opioids, with around 47,600 fatal overdoses.

Overall, almost 21 million Americans abuse substances, and around three-quarters of those are in employment. Sometimes, addictions begin from prescribed opioids for workplace injuries.

Moreover, people with substance abuse disorders are absent up to 50% more days than their coworkers, leading to lower productivity.

Here are some more statistics on drugs in the workplace (also available to view as an infographic):

  • Workers with alcohol problems are 2.7 times more likely to have injury-related absences
  • 16% of emergency room patients injured at work failed a Breathalyzer test
  • 11% of workplace fatalities showed recent alcohol consumption
  • Overdose deaths at work increased 25% annually between 2013 and 2017
  • Mining, construction, and oil and gas have the highest opioid dispensing rates
  • People with substance abuse disorders are absent up to 50% more days than their coworkers
  • Fractures, carpal tunnel syndrome and neurologic spine pain have the highest opioid dispensing rates

Drugs in the Workplace and Safety

Misuse of opioids, alcohol and other substances should not be taken lightly. Unfortunately, besides overdosing, drugs in the workplace bring safety risks.

For instance, workers under the influence of drugs have lower awareness and inhibitions. Drugs slow reaction times, and increase the risk of violent behaviour. In addition, there’s the risk of poor decision making and needless risk-taking – two of the most common outcomes of taking drugs at work.

Most importantly, all of these behaviours compromise worker safety.

For example, let’s look at driving accidents. According to GHSA, 44% of fatally-injured drivers in 2016 tested positive for drugs. More than half of the drug-affected drivers had marijuana, opioids or a combination of the two in their system. To clarify, these numbers reflect the nationwide increase in drug use and the risks they pose to our safety.

However, drugs still pose risk even if they’re not used in the workplace. The after- and side-effects of drugs (hangover and withdrawal symptoms) also impact job preperformance.

How to Spot Drugs in the Workplace

Prescription opioids have strong side effects, including:

  • withdrawal
  • constipation
  • changes to brain chemistry
  • nausea
  • respiratory depression
  • increased pain sensitivity
  • driving impairment

But how can you spot drug use in the workplace?

Well, the biggest giveaway is behaviour changes. The most common include:

  • irritableness,
  • poor concentration,
  • loss of motivation,
  • poor personal hygiene,
  • sweaty palms and shaky hands,
  • red, watery eyes, and
  • frequent bathroom breaks.

In short, if a worker displays these behaviours, then drugs may be responsible. Furthermore, the HSE recommends employers to look out for these warning signs:

  • unexplained and frequent absences
  • productivity lapses
  • increase in accidents and near misses
  • performance or conduct issues

However, stess and illness have similar signs, so be vigilant.

Tackling Drugs in the Workplace

Drug dependency can begin with prescription opioids. In fact, four out of five people with heroin addictions began by misusing prescription opioids.

Injured workers are susceptible to drug overdoses, as prescription opioids are typically prescribed for pain relief. Furthermore, depression, sleep apnea, obesity and COPD can develop for injured workers, increasing the risk of overdose.

Nevertheless, there are steps employers can take to curb drugs in the workplace:

  • Educate employees on the risks of substance abuse
  • Implement drug testing
  • Provide support services and wellness programs
  • Encourage safe behaviour across departments
  • Implement drug-free workplace policies

Most importantly, employers can offer services and programs to support those suffering from alcohol and drug abuse and other health problems.

For example, the Employee Assistance Program offers short-term counselling, assessment and referral for employees with alcohol and drugs abuse programs, mental health problems, financial problems and any other problems affecting the employee's work. External counsellors can make it easier for employees to open up about their problems.

On the other hand, small companies may find it more difficult to establish these programs. Yet, drug-free workplace policies have their benefits, mainly increased productivity and staff longevity. Furthermore, these strategies will reduce lost-time and healthcare costs.

Drug and alcohol testing

Drug testing can efficiently establish a drug-free workplace. However, as a result, workers can feel untrusted. Combat this with a clear workplace drugs policy explaining the safety reasons behind drug testing.

Both private and public sector employers can legally test their employees. For some industries, drug testing is an absolute requirement, in other words, any that involve operating heavy machinery.

US federal and state laws provide guidelines on the policies workplaces can set for substance abuse.

Addressing unsafe behaviour

Changing human behaviour is not easy, and some aspects just can’t be controlled. Drugs in the workplace, nevertheless, can be eliminated, alongside their consequential unsafe behaviours.

Unsafe behaviour can sometimes be traced to prescription opioids, illicit drugs and alcohol. Drugs in the workplace is at a 10-year high, with opioid painkillers exposing many workers to addiction.

Drug free workplace programs sends a clear message that workplace safety comes first. But even if drugs are used outside work hours, the side effects can enter the workplace and cause risk. Therefore, employers must take measures to eliminate the known (controllable) root cause for work incidents and injuries.

These actions could make significant difference to those struggling with addiction.

If organizations say no to drugs in the workplace, then employees (70% out of the 14.8 million employed drug users) must say no too. Above all, EHS professionals play an important role, and their actions can make a significant difference in tackling the opioid crisis.

By addressing substance abuse in the workplace, organizations will alleviate the national crisis, and look after their staff. Plus, employers can expect improvements in incident rates, productivity and workplace safety culture.

Get the infographic: Drugs in the Workplace Facts and Stats »

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A Copenhagen Business School graduate with a MA in International Business Communication, Tytti joined the Pro-Sapien marketing department in 2017 and brings a wide range of experience to the team – not to mention the ability to fluently speak three languages, Finnish (native), English and Spanish. Outside of business Tytti is an avid gymnast having competed at international level in the Aesthetic Group Gymnastics Championships, and has lived in Finland, France, Argentina, Spain, Denmark and now the United Kingdom. As the Graduate Marketing Executive Tytti coordinates Pro-Sapien’s social outreach and blog content, and can be reached at tytti.rekosuo@pro-sapien.com.