HR’s role in managing substance abuse in the workplace

15 November 2017 | Web Article Number: ME20177556

Occupational Health
HR’s role in managing substance abuse in the workplace
Article By Rhys Evans, MD at ALCO Safe

IN South Africa, around 15% of society has a serious substance abuse problem, according to the Anti-Drug Alliance. That number is identical in the workplace. Standard approaches are to put a substance abuse policy in place, test and discipline offenders. But managing the problem cannot be left to the organisation’s security contingent. To protect the organisation and ensure the wellbeing of its employees, Human Resources (HR) teams need step up to the plate.  

Ignoring a substance abuse problem in the workplace can be immensely detrimental to an organisation. Employees with drug or alcohol dependencies may have impaired motor skills, difficulty processing information, frequent health issues, anxiety and poor judgement. This is a threat to the business on many fronts.  

Depending on the job being performed by the individual, it can translate into destruction of valuable assets, injury and loss of business reputation. Worse, if the person responsible for the accident tests positive for drugs or alcohol, insurance companies won’t pay out. Should management be aware of substance abuse and neglect to address the issue, the company’s liability skyrockets.  

There are also productivity, morale and workplace culture issues that are impacted. Studies conducted by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) on the abuse of alcohol and drugs in the workplace, find that:  

  • Absenteeism of employees with alcohol and drug problems is three times higher than for other employees.
  • Employees with chemical dependence problems claim sick benefits three times more than other employees, and make compensation claims five times more than other employees.
  • Twenty to 25% of injuries in the workplace involve employees under the influence of alcohol.
  • Drugs and alcohol supplied at work amounts to 15% to 30% of all accidents at work. 

Substance abuse is not a problem you, as an employer want to sweep under the rug.

HR has a big role to play in identifying and acting to control substance abuse in the workplace. It starts with putting a policy in place governing substance abuse because, quite simply, no organisation can discipline or fire an employee for breaking a rule that doesn’t exist.  

The arguments against such a policy are usually: the high legal fees that might result from such action, the cost of purchasing and maintaining the testing equipment to enforce the policy, and the difficulty of creating the policy.  

The reality is that a strong, legal and binding policy that aligns with a company’s vision and objectives which support employee wellbeing can be developed with relative ease. In addition, testing equipment continues to advance, making it easy and cost effective for companies with hundreds of employees to test every individual that enters its gates and take immediate action. Ditto for random drug testing—we no longer need to draw blood - saliva and urine tests often meet the requirement.  

Legal assistance may be required to create the policy, but use of best practices and the help of companies that have dealt with the control and management of substance abuse for decades, is invaluable. At ALCO-Safe, we don’t just provide breathalysers and drug testing solutions to South African businesses and train them on their use, we help them develop substance abuse policies that work.  

We advise our clients on the correct processes and procedures to follow, engage with stakeholders, like employee representative bodies to get buy-in and ensure communication is aligned, and help drive awareness within the business and educate employees.  

Is zero-tolerance too harsh?  

Zero tolerance doesn’t necessary mean that an employee should be dismissed on a first offence, which is a common misconception. However, a policy should meet the legal requirements, protect the company’s people and assets, and be able to protect the company from external liability. For example, if a truck driver or bus driver under the influence is involved in an accident, the company needs to prove that it took reasonable steps to ensure the driver was fit for duty. What is vital however, is that such a policy aligns with the vision and objectives of the company.  

In 40 years of solutions to South African businesses, ALCO Safe has found the single most dependable and effective stance has proven to be creating a culture of safety within an organisation where no drugs are allowed and any level above a reading of zero blood alcohol is too high – also known as a zero-tolerance approach. It is also the most common approach. Of the over 6,000 companies that use our services—including mines, construction companies, energy, transport and government organisations, corporates and legal firms—the majority make zero tolerance  for the use of alcohol and drugs in the workplace as the benchmark.  

Legislation provides a starting point.  

The legal requirement, from the Labour Relations Act to the Occupational Health & Safety Act, does not vary. They clearly state that:

  • Businesses may not allow intoxicated persons into the workplace.
  • Businesses must take reasonable and practical measures to test for substance abuse and that least invasive methods should be used. 

However, the law leaves it up to each business to define substance abuse policies that meet the needs of their organisation. Our advice is to make it fair and put procedures in place that will make testing and disciplinary actions stick.  

Make it fair; make it stick  

A few key rules for HR:

  • Ensure the substance abuse policy is part of the employment contract or at least referred to in the contract. 
  • Introduce it to staff at induction and make it part of regular safety awareness campaigns
  • Ensure employees know their rights
  • Ensure the business understands the legal requirements and the impact of failure
  • Ensure your policy is kept up to date with changing legislation
  • Put procedures in place that meet legal requirements and can withstand testing in a Labour court. For example:
    • Disciplinary action in the absence of testing is hard to implement as findings are subjective. A field sobriety test is not enough.
    • Processes and testing must be shown to be fair and reasonable – if testing on suspicion, there needs to be a clear reason with supporting evidence for testing; if testing is random, the business must be able to show how it selected people for testing; acceptable breathalyser testing must comprise two tests, 20 minutes apart, to rule out alcohol in the breath as a result of mouthwash, etc.
    • All interactions must meet policy requirements
  • Ensure that the person doing the testing is trained and competent to do so. Using an outside company is advisable.
  • Ensure equipment is correctly maintained and in full working order
  • Understand the difference between a misconduct (breaking the rules) and incapacity—the problem of alcoholism or drug dependency.
    • The law says businesses should assist those with dependencies and that may take the form of rehabilitation and counselling. The law does not compel the business to pay for the rehabilitation, however. Should the employee deny incapacity and refuse such assistance, their actions are treated as misconduct. 

Get strategic

A last word of advice is to get strategic about testing. We find that our clients implement testing to ensure their staff take responsibility for their behaviour, as well as to prevent negative trends. For our mining clients, a breathalyser on entry to the mine and random testing for drugs is the norm.

 For our construction clients and those in the transportation industry, a breathalyser on entry to the site and at the end of the day will ensure workers arrive sober and stay that way through the day. Other clients, typically corporates, may test on a Monday morning and late on a Friday afternoon as it stops employees coming in to work with a hangover, or starting the weekend too early on a Friday.

 As much as your employees make the business, your company is only as strong as its weakest link. Don’t let that be substance abuse. HR is not just and administrative function, its role is to help each employee maximise their potential and drive the business forward. A culture of safety, sobriety and caring vigilance is, in our experience, what the most successful companies strive for.

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