Although it’s a difficult subject to touch for both employers and employees, recognizing and treating issues of substance abuse is a huge aspect of keeping everyone safe on a construction site.
In the United States, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration reported construction as the industry with the second-highest rate of substance abuse from 2008-2012, which indicates that it’s a widespread problem. This study, which took place on construction sites in South Africa outlined many risk factors and severe consequences that come with employees being impaired by drugs or alcohol, which indicates that it’s one with a big effect on safety. Substance abuse is both far-reaching and very detrimental; it’s something that must be addressed on all worksites.
Employees under the influence of harmful substances are not only putting themselves and those around them at increased risk of injury or death, but affecting the bottom line: absenteeism increases, productivity lowers, and health care expenses rise along with disability and compensation claims. The higher turnover levels that accompany substance abuse can also cost a bomb.
Substance abuse in the construction industry, then, is not something that can be overlooked, as tricky as it is to deal with.
Where to begin: a sound policy
How do you begin the conversation around substance abuse with employees? First, you need a framework in place.
For workers to know where they stand, they need some rules and regulations surrounding substance use and the worksite. A policy should lay out the expectations from employees when they are on the job (and in many cases when they are off the job), and be accessible and understandable to all. Include:
- The scope of the policy (who it covers).
- The goals of the policy.
- Clarification on the terms used.
- The responsibility the company will take to educate and offer help.
- The expectations and rules, and consequences for breaking with these.
- Any testing procedures.
- The legal rights of employees (e.g to appeal).
The Construction Coalition for a Drug- and Alcohol-Free Workplace (USA) has a basic policy template which you could add to and adapt for your company. Be aware of any federal or state regulations and laws that affect what you can include in such a policy, particularly around testing. It is a good idea to consult with an employment lawyer.
Reading the signs
The most robust drug policy won’t be effective if you can’t detect any signs of substance abuse. This can, of course, be done through testing—often, companies will include a policy of random tests, pre-employment tests, post-accident tests, or regular tests done through urine, mouth swabs, or hair follicles. Your company’s testing procedures may include a mix of schedules and methods.
Testing alone, however, is not the only way to find out whether employees are struggling with substance abuse. Supervisors, bosses and even colleagues can be on the lookout for changed behavior, reduced capacity to work, and other signs that indicate a person may be under the influence of drugs or alcohol. Psychology Today has a list of warning signs to look out for in the workplace, and these include:
- Personality changes
- Physical signs like sweaty palms, shaking hands, watery eyes etc
- Deteriorating hygiene
- Unexplained absences
- Noticeable and sudden money problems
While none of these are 100% indicative of an issue, they can be—and those who work closely with a substance abuser will notice them first. Encourage a “speak up culture” on your worksites, and ensure that employees feel comfortable coming to their bosses with concerns confidentially.
To find out whether suspicions are founded, employers can employ testing or interviews.
Dealing with the issue
With a strong and sound policy in place, you are off to a good start. It will guide your actions and decisions once a substance abuse problem has been confirmed.
Firing any employers caught struggling with substance abuse is not the only solution. While some companies feel firmly that they will not employ anyone caught under the influence at work, others are willing to come alongside those suffering and offer help, often in the form of employee assistance programs (EAPS). Often taking the form of counseling services and other resources delivered through contracted mental health providers, EAPs have been found to offer positive economic effects and great on-the-job outcomes in many cases.
Some employees may require more extensive addiction treatment or even inpatient treatment. This may be included in health insurance policies, and may require medical leave—these details are very dependent on the company and the country in which it is located. Having someone follow up with those in treatment and discussing with them a plan for getting back to work is beneficial.
The availability of such a program can offer hope to an employee who has developed a substance abuse issue, and when it is effective, it can produce loyal and high-quality workers. Substance abuse is a widespread issue in our modern world, and offering help to those dealing with it rather than taking away their livelihood is an ethical and often win-win approach. Of course, employers should always take safety into account and ensure that employees under the influence of any substance are not putting themselves or others at risk.
The proactive approach
Help need not always come in the form of the ambulance at the bottom of the substance abuse cliff. Many companies have preventative measures in place to offer assistance to workers before they become addicted to alcohol, drugs, or other substances. A comprehensive safety plan must include prevention.
Prevention can include education and messaging around substance abuse, making available counseling or other resources for those who feel vulnerable, or early intervention. It’s important to cultivate an open, honest workplace atmosphere in which workers feel comfortable seeking help or confiding in someone—a good vibe can go a long way towards nipping problems in the bud. Having an employee assistance program helps with this, as employees may feel that they can seek help before the issue worsens.
Another preventative measure is reducing stress on your people. This study by Michael R Frone shows links between work stressors and alcohol use, and it’s commonly known that career-related stress can be a contributing factor to the use of harmful and addictive substances. Employers should keep this in mind, and aim to minimize stress for their employees. This article by the American Psychological Association includes some common sources of work stress to consider.
All of the programs in the world won't do any good if your company does not stay on top of safety concerns. This means tracking data, recording reports from employees, and creating a process for ensuring that those who need help will get it, with nothing and nobody falling through the cracks. SafetyTek's effective safety management software is designed to keep you on top of everything, facilitating a fantastic safety culture in every aspect.
Substance abuse is a serious issue on the workplace, and the risks multiply in a construction environment. Keep your people safe, and work with them to overcome issues where possible.