Title: Substances and Safety: Drinking, Drugs and the ‘New Workplace’
Author: Jennifer James
Publisher: Do It Now Foundation
Publication Date: October 2009
Catalog Number: 128

..Old and New

You hear a lot of talk these
days about the “new workplace.” And for the most part,
it’s more than just a media myth. It’s a reality.

The new workplace is a place
where labor and management recognize their own interdependence,
and work together.

It’s a place where men and women
coexist comfortably, and where the needs of individual employees
and their families are taken into account in the planning process.

Still, it’s got a lot in common
with the old workplace, if you believe statistics.

Because about 6 million American
workers use drugs regularly on the job, according to the National
Institute on Drug Abuse, often with serious consequences to themselves
and their fellow workers.

Mishandled shipments and mislaid
tools add up. Estimates of accidents, absences, falling productivity,
and rising insurance rates range up to $171 billion a year.

Workers carry their share of
the burden, too. A recent study of municipal employees in Texas
found that one in 10 drank or used drugs in the workplace.

And it was alcohol use during
work hours that resulted in the most job-related “consequences”
(injuries, absences, and disciplinary actions) for over half
these employees.

That’s why we’ve developed this
pamphlet: to point out some of the dangers of drug and alcohol
use on the job and review options about where we go from here.

Because the cost in dollars is

But in human terms — in accidents,
injuries, lost jobs, and damaged lives — the real cost
is off the charts.


Drug use in the workplace usually
keeps pace with substance use trends in other segments of society.
If a drug is used at all, it’s used in the plant or office, and
if it’s a problem anywhere, it’s a problem there.

So it shouldn’t be surprising
that drugs that depress, or slow down, the central nervous system
often turn up on the job — sometimes with disastrous consequences.

The depressant drug group includes
alcohol and a spectrum of sedatives and tranquilizers, such as
Valium® and Xanax®. We’ll focus on alcohol, though, since
it’s so widely used and because it offers such a clear example
of how depressants affect performance.

That’s because alcohol is a central
nervous system depressant. It slows a variety of brain functions,
from breathing and heartbeat to thinking. Effects vary by amount
consumed and other factors, including age, sex, and body size.

Perceptual abilities, such as
vision and hearing, aren’t affected — at least not at low doses
and not at first. Still, the brain’s ability to coordinate mental
and physical activities is reduced even after a drink or two,
making alcohol particularly dangerous on the job.

Other depressants produce similar
effects in similar ways.

  • In even small doses, sleeping
    pills and tranquilizers slow brain activity and impair thinking
    and judgment.
  • A study of Valium’s effects
    on driving linked it to problems in speed control and concentration,
    even at normal doses. In fact, dose for dose, Valium proved as
    dangerous on the road as alcohol.

And the problems don’t stop when
the drugs wear off.

Breakdown products from depressants
can stay in the body for days after use, subtly affecting coordination,
concentration, and judgment. And since all depressants cause
dependence, the risks just keep on coming.


The stimulant group includes
chemicals that speed up the brain and central nervous system,
such as cocaine, crystal meth and other amphetamines, and over-the-counter
diet and stay-awake tablets. They all reduce appetite and cause
increased feelings of energy and alertness.

One reason stimulants are so
widely used at work is the user’s belief that the drugs sharpen
attention and improve performance. However, positive effects
on performance are short-lived and involve only simple tasks.

On the other hand, the drugs
trigger changes that can cancel out the benefits of an energy
boost, including:

  • tension, irritability, and aggressiveness
  • fatigue and dizziness
  • impaired concentration and judgment

Like alcohol, cocaine and stimulants
can increase the tendency for impulsiveness and risk-taking,
making use a particular risk on the road or around machinery.

And since stimulants can also
mask the effects of alcohol and other drugs, users may overestimate
their ability to drive or perform other hazardous activities.

And also like the depressants,
stimulants can produce a serious long-term dependence — which
can affect a lot more than job performance.


Still the most widely-used illegal
drug, marijuana is one of the most-often used drugs in the workplace.

A main reason for pot’s visibility
on the job is its “invisibility” everywhere else, since
its high produces few physical signs of use. And while most smokers
think they can function normally — and unnoticed — under its
influence, new research indicates this isn’t always true.

Even at low doses, marijuana
slows cognitive skills. Complex tasks, particularly those involving
calculation or problem solving, seem most affected, but pot also
disrupts concentration and short-term memory. Other effects include:

  • slowed reflexes and reaction
  • impaired peripheral vision and
    reduced visual-tracking ability
  • distractibility and reduced
    attention span

Pot’s intoxicating effects typically
fade in a few hours, but impaired thinking and performance can
last longer.

In fact, a recent study at Stanford
University showed that pilots continued to perform below par
for up to 24 hours after use, even though they were unaware of
any “hangover” effects.

..Other Drugs

Other substances can pose other
risks to workplace safety and performance. In fact, a survey
by the Bureau of National Affairs found that many managers blame
legal drugs — including prescription and over-the-counter medications
— for a big share of on-the-job problems.

Common examples include cold
and allergy remedies and antihistamines which can cause drowsiness
and slow reaction time. Even caffeine, in big-enough doses (like
those in “stay awake” pills, diet aids, and industrial-strength
office coffee) can disrupt concentration and trigger anxiety.

Smoking has been getting its
share of attention lately, too, as “new workplace”
managers see it for what it is: a main cause of employee illness
and reduced productivity.

And they have numbers to back
them up. In fact, the American Lung Association currently estimates
that each smoker costs industry an average of $1000 in health
care costs and accidents every year.

Also, studies show that smokers
in non-smoke free workplaces spend up to three hours a week in
“smoking behaviors” (lighting, smoking, and handling
cigarettes, emptying ashtrays, looking for matches, etc.), activities
which distract from safety — and from the task at hand.

..Risky Business

There are dozens of ways to deal
with the problem of drinking and drug use in the new workplace.
But most experts agree the best way is one that targets the causes
of the problem.

On the management side, that
could include paying greater attention to quality-of-life issues
such as alienation, boredom, family problems, and simple burn-out.
On the employee’s side, it comes down to plain old responsibility.

Workers need to remind themselves
(or be reminded) of their duty to themselves, their co-workers,
and their employers, not to come to work in an impaired state
— any impaired state — whether caused by drinking, drugs, illness,
or stress.

Employers, for their part, need
to actively promote safety and sobriety in the workplace and
provide services for impaired employees. Research has consistently
shown the success and cost-effectiveness of such programs.

And common sense underscores
the advantages of lower accident and absentee rates, as well
as decreased job turnover and training costs.

Still, to be effective, the changes
need to come now.

Because substance use is risky
enough in the first place. In the workplace — old or new —
it’s a riskier business still.

..Sidebar 1 | What Works at Work

In the new workplace — just
as in the old — employers can choose to respond to drugs and
alcohol use in a variety of ways.

Some work better than others,
depending on such factors as company size, severity of the problem,
and corporate “style.” But three approaches are most

  • Drug Testing.
    Businesses are increasingly
    testing employees and job applicants. According to the Society
    for Human Resource Management, 84 percent of U.S. businesses
    tested at least some of their workers in 2006.
  • Employee
    Assistance Programs.

    Probably the best approach to drug and alcohol abuse in the workplace,
    EAP’s offer a range of services, from chemical dependency counseling
    and family services to treatment and placement.
  • Health Promotion
    Quality-of-life services, from smoking
    cessation and stress management programs to nutrition and exercise
    counseling, seek to improve employee wellness overall, rather
    than limiting services to those with chemical problems.

..Sidebar 2 | Splitting Hairs: Testing the Limits

Everything changes and drug screening
has been doing its share of changing lately, along with everything
else. A few years ago, the only real drug test in the workplace
was the urine screen. And even though urine remains the
undisputed king of testing — its dominance may be, well, eliminated
in coming months and years.

That’s because big business is
nothing if not responsive to market trends, and drug testing
is a big business and getting bigger by the minute, to judge
from recent surveys.

As they’ve gotten bigger, testing
labs have also gotten diversified, in their quest for the holy
grail of drug testing — a test more accurate and less intrusive
than current methods.

In the process, they’ve left
virtually no body fluid untapped — or, at least, unanalyzed.

The latest entry is hair analysis.
It detects drug breakdown products in the hair shaft, and can
reveal use over a much longer period — months, even years, rather
than the days or weeks in which use is detectable in urine.

Besides its wider detectability
“window,” proponents tout hair testing as less intrusive
and more difficult to contaminate than urine.

Still, hair analysis is more
time-consuming and expensive and less likely to show recent use
than urine (since hair takes time to grow), a main reason that
number two remains number one for now in the workplace — and
is expected to stay that way.

This is one in a series of publications
on drugs, behavior, and health by Do It Now Foundation.
Please call or write for a complete list of available titles,
or check us out online at




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