Most people have a picture in their heads of what a typical drug or alcohol abuser looks like — and it’s generally not a pretty sight. The truth, however, is that most substance abusers look like average American citizens, and most hold jobs. In fact, according to the Department of Labor, of the 17.2 million illicit drug users aged 18 or older in 2005, 74.8 percent were employed either full or part time.

This makes substance abuse a serious workplace hazard that affects both the user and his or her coworkers. Research indicates that between 10 and 20 percent of the nation’s workers who die on the job test positive for alcohol or other drugs. In fact, industries with the highest rates of drug abuse are also those at higher risk for occupational injuries, such as the construction, mining, manufacturing and wholesale industries.

Know when to test
While the federal government requires workers in the transportation industry to be tested for alcohol or other drugs, many organizations conduct drug testing as part of their precautionary measures to alleviate substance abuse issues in the work environment. There are six situations where testing for alcohol or other drugs is required under federal transportation regulation standards, including:
  • Pre-employment
  • Random
  • Post-accident
  • Reasonable suspicion
  • Return-to-duty
  • Follow-up
Employers can use a standard test that will establish whether a person is using marijuana (THC), cocaine, PCP, opiates (such as codeine and morphine) and amphetamines. Some employers opt for a larger test that includes prescription drugs and alcohol.

Arm yourself
There are hundreds of substances that people abuse. These include marijuana, cocaine, amphetamines, heroin and other opiates, ecstasy, LSD, PCP, rohypnol, inhalants, alcohol and steroids. As a supervisor, it is beneficial to have a basic knowledge of the most commonly abused drugs and their effects.

The two most commonly abused drugs are marijuana and cocaine (as reported by a U.S. National Institutes of Health study published in May, 2007). Some signs of marijuana use include red eyes, dry mouth, slowed reaction time, increased hunger, paranoia, short-term memory loss and a distorted sense of time. The most common signs of cocaine use are dilated pupils, increased energy and excited speech. Some cocaine users may also experience frequent nose bleeds.

The third most common type of abused drugs is amphetamines. Amphetamines are prescribed in the United States for narcolepsy, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), treatment-resistant depression, and extreme obesity. Physical effects of amphetamines can include reduced appetite, increased/ distorted sensations, hyperactivity, dilated pupils, flushing, increased blood pressure, sweating, blurred vision, impaired speech, and dizziness.

The related compound, methamphetamine, commonly referred to by its street name crystal meth, has grown in popularity in the last decade due to its relatively easy (although highly unsafe) manufacturing process. Common indicators of methamphetamine abuse include grinding of the teeth, obsessive picking of the face or body, hallucinations (auditory or visual), euphoria, extreme energy, lack of sleep, dramatic weight loss, paranoia, and aggressive behavior.

Prescription drugs & alcohol
According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, an estimated 4.7 million Americans used prescription drugs non-medically for the first time in 2002, with the most commonly abused drugs being pain relievers. Physicians report writing more prescriptions than ever before, including prescriptions for opiates, CNS depressors and stimulants. To further complicate the picture, the abuse of these drugs has increased markedly in recent years due to the ease of obtaining them from online pharmacies.

Last, but not least, is the problem of alcohol abuse. According to a study directed by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), 17.6 million American adults abuse alcohol. Since alcohol consumption is common in our culture, it can be difficult to establish the difference between social drinking and abuse. Still, a basic pattern emerges. Over time, drinking becomes more important to the abuser than anything else, including his or her job, friends and family. Alcohol starts to increasingly affect the individual physically and emotionally, often impairing judgment to a dangerous level.

Know what to do
Most employers’ alcohol and drug policies forbid any employee from reporting for duty, or remaining on duty, when under the influence of alcohol or other drugs. As a supervisor, you are the key to maintaining a safe and substance-free workplace. Since you have daily contact with your team, you may be among the first to notice a behavioral or physical change in an employee. It is up to you to take action before an accident or injury occurs.

Some common behavioral cues of drug or alcohol abuse include:
  • Higher absenteeism compared to average workers
  • Higher accident rate compared to average workers
  • Loss of ambition
  • Impaired thinking with slowed reaction time
  • Depression with irritability or defensiveness
If you notice a job performance problem, the first step is to document the employee’s behavior. Keep detailed records of absenteeism, poor job performance, and behavioral or physical changes. Your records should include the date and time of each observation. During the observation period use caution, and make sure the employee’s work is being done efficiently and that the employee is not creating an unsafe situation for your team or for themselves.

Be aware that the signs and symptoms of substance abuse can be identical to those that may arise from a medical condition. For example, diabetes may cause symptoms similar to alcohol use. Remember, you are not expected to diagnose substance abuse problems, but you are responsible for monitoring job performance.

When a problem arises, be sure to follow your established company procedures. Always take the appropriate steps to alleviate any issues of substance abuse before a costly accident or injury occurs on your watch.

US Department of Labor/OSHA;; Safety & Health Topics – Workplace Substance Abuse; April 2009
National Institute on Drug Abuse/National Institutes of Health; Prevalence, Correlates, Disability, and Comorbidity of DSM-IV Drug Abuse and Dependence in the United States; Arch Gen Psychiatry. 2007; 64(5):566-576; Wilson M. Compton, MD, MPE; Yonette F. Thomas, PhD; Frederick S. Stinson, PhD; Bridget F. Grant, PhD
National Institute on Drug Abuse; Trends in Prescription Drug Abuse;
Web MD;