Get a grip on workplace substance abuse

Worker being tested for alcohol abuseSubstance abuse is an increasing headache in the workplace. It can have dire consequences in terms of safety, morale and production, no matter what size the business.  Investment in reliable detection solutions, used in conjunction with a sound health and safety policy, can go a long way towards avoiding unhealthy tensions or even life-threatening incidents on the shop floor.

“The range of substances being abused by employees stretches from alcohol to illegal drugs to prescription medication.  Undetected intoxication achieved through any of these products has a major negative impact on the business and in a worst-case scenario can lead to fatal industrial accidents,” says Michael Crossland of PSA (Precision Safety Appliances cc).

Companies need a substance abuse policy to protecting their rights to test for alcohol

Detecting substance abuse, however, can be fraught with problems, not least of which is infringing on employees’ rights to privacy.  This is why it is essential that even a business with a small staff complement has a Health and Safety Policy that incorporates a clearly defined Substance Abuse Policy that stipulates zero tolerance as well as detailing the testing procedure.

“This type of policy will ensure that the employer stays on the right side of the law, sets the parameters for testing and the disciplinary action to be taken if the employee tests positive,” says Crossland. 

With a policy in place, the next step is deciding on the testing method.  Testing must obviously be conducted in a fair manner, ensuring no one person or group is unfairly targeted and the equipment used must be of a professional standard, calibrated and administered by trained and competent people.

Reliable substance abuse testing kits are vital

It doesn’t make sense to have all the correct procedures in place, only to find that your alcohol testing instruments are unreliable or severely limited in what substances they can pick up.  Investing in high quality detection equipment can save time and money in retesting, not to mention lives should the abuse be masked and the intoxicated employee return to their work station.

“This is particularly important in ‘safety sensitive’ situations such as truck drivers, forklift and crane operators and people that work at great heights such as scaffold erectors,” said Crossland.

 In selecting testing equipment employers need to consider the track record of the supplier, the range of substances that each instrument can detect, the training offered by the supplier and the frequency of recalibration, which ensures on-going testing accuracy.

According to Crossland, there are many breathalyzers on the market. Entry level instruments are non-alcohol specific and tend to either not pick up alcohol or give false positives. These instruments are not intended for industrial use and are not recommended as reliable indicators in the work environment.

Professional grade instruments are alcohol specific and highly advanced to ensure that the correct results are obtained. These instruments should be calibrated on a regular basis, preferable every six to 12 months, to ensure the accuracy of the units.

The most common form of drug screening in the workplace is urine testing.  This is the most accurate way of screening employees for the presence of a large variety of both legal and illegal drugs.  Any positive result should be sent to a pathology laboratory for confirmation, further ensuring the accuracy of the initial test.

“We supply the world-renown Lifeloc portable breath alcohol testers as well as the Split-Specimen Cup system for drug testing, and provide training on both these reliable and easy to use methods,” said Crossland.  The results of both these testing systems are recognised in CCMA cases.

The third step in the chain is deciding when and who to test for substance abuse.  Some companies, particularly those in dangerous industrial environments, have a blanket policy of testing for alcohol as people arrive for work and refusing to allow intoxicated staff on site.  Many test for drugs as a matter of course before confirming a new appointment to the staff complement, and/or perform random testing throughout the year.  Still others insist on testing all employees at annual medical check-ups.

There are, however, signs to watch for that would warrant testing under the terms of the company’s health and safety regulations.  Some points of concern to look out for are:

  • Unruly and/or aggressive or despondent behaviour.
  • Marked increase in absenteeism and deterioration in health.
  • A definite decrease in productivity for no apparent reason.
  • Unusually dishevelled appearance.  

A cluster of these warning signs would warrant testing for substance abuse in terms of the Health and Safety Policy as an employer is expected to ensure a safe working environment for all employees.

Substance abuse affects more than just the user in the workplace

The abuse of drugs and alcohol by employees affects not just the user but everybody they come into contact with, from colleagues that have to fill the production gap left by the incapacitated to managers that have to deal with the fall-out, and health and safety officers that have to shoulder the responsibility should there be an industrial accident. 

A clear substance abuse strategy within the company’s Health and Safety Policy that includes trusted testing methods and an employee assistance program to help the abuser and relevant staff plot a way forward are invaluable tools to minimise the fall-out that this destructive behaviour can cause in the workplace.