Under the influence

Substance abuse problems bring safety concerns into the workplace

Posted on May 14, 2019 :: Back Office Operations
Posted by , Insight on Manufacturing Staff Writer

A recent nationwide survey from drugabuse.com revealed that nearly a quarter of workers admit to using drugs or alcohol in the workplace, introducing concerns not just for those workers but their co-workers as well.

In that survey, which was released in March, 22.5 percent of respondents said they use drugs or alcohol at work. As further evidence of a workplace substance abuse problem, a National Safety Council survey showed the opioid epidemic touches 75 percent of employers.

Results of the surveys and concerns about the implications of substance abuse in the workplace led the Wisconsin Safety Council, a program of Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, to make the issue a focus of its annual conference in April.

“It’s not only widely affecting communities but also businesses and employers,” says Kady Olson, senior safety manager for the WSC. “It’s becoming an issue where businesses are actually being put in the middle.”

Opioid abuse has become increasingly prevalent statewide, Olson says. In 2017, 916 people died of opioid overdose, and the rate of prescription painkiller overdoses has increased by 238 percent in recent years.

Opioid and other substance abuse reaches beyond people’s personal lives to touch their work lives as well. Through its annual safety conference and upcoming information sessions, the WSC wants to share steps employers and safety professionals can take to help mitigate the effects of the issue.

Olson says employers often must walk the line of working within the confines of laws, such as those affecting discrimination, while still maintaining a healthy, safe workplace for all employees.

Bringing alcohol or drug abuse into the workplace exacts costs. Impairment can lead to productivity losses, affecting quality and introducing errors. Employers also are seeing an increase in the number of accidents and injuries, Olson says.

In addition, substance abuse affects companies financially. A person injured on the job may go to a doctor and get an opioid prescription. If that leads to a drug abuse situation, employers continue to pay through higher worker’s compensation costs as well as having employees out of work for a longer time if they need to go on disability, Olson says.

“We’re kind of seeing a full circle from the cost upfront, those direct costs of worker’s compensation, and then the direct cost of lost time,” she says.

Talent troubles

Steve Baue, president and owner of ERC: Counselors and Consultants, says the talent shortage affects the way employers are addressing substance abuse in the workplace. When unemployment was higher, companies could have stricter standards, but today’s low jobless rate has some revisiting their zero-tolerance policies, he says.

Baue, who spent nearly 25 years working in human resources before moving to ERC, says some mental health and substance abuse specialists are beginning to re-evaluate zero tolerance, questioning whether these policies help either employers or those with substance abuse problems. If that person is a good employee who’s willing to try to stop, it can be in the best interest of all parties to get that person help, he says.

While zero-tolerance policies have their place in workplaces in which safety is a top concern such as truck driving or construction, Baue says employers increasingly look at substance abuse on a case-by-case basis and allow for some discretion.

Some experts say it’s time to redefine a win when it comes to addiction. If a win is complete sobriety or abstinence from substance abuse, that can be hard to come by, Baue says. If someone is truly addicted, that addiction will always be there. Thus, a more realistic goal could be using less, holding down a job or getting a license back, he says.

Drawing from his experience working in HR and his present role leading an employee assistance program company, Baue says there’s no walking model of a substance abuser. “It could be your very best employee; it could be your very worst employee,” he says.

In a past role as vice president of human resources, Baue’s employer had a zero-tolerance policy and conducted a lot of random drug testing. Later in his career, his philosophy shifted, and Baue decided it made more sense to invest money in training front-line supervisors in reasonable suspicion. The goal, he says, is to keep workers safe, including the person using, and then deciding the best course of action.

De Pere-based ERC compiles a list of the top 10 issues its counselors encounter. While drug and alcohol abuse don’t make that list, issues that do can make it more likely someone will turn to recreational drug use or alcohol abuse, Baue says.

“We have a knack in northeastern Wisconsin to self-medicate,” he says. “It’s that western European, stoic ‘I can handle it,’ but then that also leads to look at alternatives in how we handle it.”

Companies looking to address substance abuse in the workplace have some options. If they offer an EAP benefit, employees can use this service voluntarily or supervisors can refer people, requiring they get help addressing an issue. ERC’s counselors, for example, do assessments and recommend a treatment plan, which the employee would undergo elsewhere.

This summer, the Wisconsin Safety Council will offer four statewide training sessions on opioid abuse, including one in Appleton on July 29 at a to-be-determined location. The organization will partner with local law enforcement and Milwaukee-based law firm Ogletree Deakins, which specializes in HR law, to provide information and training at the half-day sessions.

Olson, who will lead the sessions, says they’ll help companies assess their drug-free workplace policies and determine what language might need to be added to protect the workplace from opioid abuse. The goal, she says, is to create a proactive, stress-free workplace policy.


Opioid abuse by the numbers

75% of employers have been affected by opioid usage

38% of employers deal with absenteeism or impaired worker performance due to opioid abuse

31% of workplaces have experienced an onsite arrest, overdose or near miss/injury due to opioids

17% of employers are confident they have a plan to address the issue


If you go

The Wisconsin Safety Council will hold its half-day Appleton Opioid Awareness session on July 29. The location and start time are yet to be determined. For updates and more information, visit wmc.org/events/category/wisconsin-safety-council.