Facts about Drugs and Alcohol in the Workplace

Alcohol and Drugs

Alcohol and drug use among employees and their family members can be an expensive problem for business and industry, with issues ranging from lost productivity, absenteeism, injuries, fatalities, theft and low employee morale, to an increase in health care, legal liabilities and workers' compensation costs.  

The impact of alcoholism and drug dependence in the workplace often focuses on four major issues:

  1. Premature death/fatal accidents 
  2. Injuries/accident rates 
  3. Absenteeism/extra sick leave 
  4. Loss of production   

Additional problem areas can include:

  • Tardiness/sleeping on the job 
  • After-effects of substance use (hangover, withdrawal) affecting job performance 
  • Poor decision making 
  • Loss of efficiency 
  • Theft 
  • Lower morale of co-workers 
  • Increased likelihood of having trouble with co-workers/supervisors or tasks 
  • Preoccupation with obtaining and using substances while at work, interfering with attention and concentration 
  • Illegal activities at work including selling illicit drugs to other employees 
  • Higher turnover 
  • Training of new employees 
  • Disciplinary procedures 
  • In addition, family members living with someone’s alcoholism or drug use may also suffer significant job performance related problems -- including absenteeism, lack of focus, increased health-related problems and use of health insurance.  

Alcohol Use

Two specific kinds of drinking behavior significantly contribute to the level of work-performance problems:  


  • drinking right before or during working hours (including drinking at lunch and at company functions), and  
  • heavy drinking the night before that causes hangovers during work the next day.   


And it isn’t just alcoholics who can generate problems in the workplace. Research has shown that the majority of alcohol-related work-performance problems are associated with nondependent drinkers who may occasionally drink too much -- not exclusively by alcohol-dependent employees.    

While alcoholism can affect any industry and any organization, big or small, workplace alcoholism is especially prevalent in these particular industries:   

  • Food service 
  • Construction 
  • Mining and Drilling 
  • Excavation 
  • Installation, maintenance and repair 
  • Prescription Drugs   


There is always a level of risk when using any drug including prescription or over-the-counter medications.   


Drug reactions vary from person to person. If you are taking a drug you haven’t had before, you won’t know how it will affect you. It’s important to follow your doctor’s advice when taking prescription drugs and discuss any side-effects and how this might impact on your work.   


The effects of prescription drugs such as benzodiazepines (e.g. Xanax®) can have an impact on your work and you should discuss these with your doctor. Long term use in particular may become problematic.  

What can the workplace do?

Work can be an important and effective place to address alcoholism and other drug issues by establishing or promoting programs focused on improving health. Many individuals and families face a host of difficulties closely associated with problem drinking and drug use, and these problems quite often spill over into the workplace. By encouraging and supporting treatment, employers can dramatically assist in reducing the negative impact of alcoholism and addiction in the workplace, while reducing their costs.     


Employers can address substance use and abuse in their employee population by: implementing drug-free workplace and other written substance abuse policies; offering health benefits that provide comprehensive coverage for substance use disorders, including aftercare and counseling; reducing stigma in the workplace; and educating employees about the health and productivity hazards of substance abuse through company wellness programs.     


Research has demonstrated that alcohol and drug treatment pays for itself in reduced healthcare costs that begin as soon as people begin recovery.  

Some facts about alcohol in the workplace:

Workers with alcohol problems were 2.7 times more likely than workers without drinking problems to have injury-related absences.   


A hospital emergency department study showed that 35 percent of patients with an occupational injury were at-risk drinkers.   


Breathalyzer tests detected alcohol in 16% of emergency room patients injured at work.   


Analyses of workplace fatalities showed that at least 11% of the victims had been drinking.   


Large federal surveys show that 24% of workers report drinking during the workday at least once in the past year.   


One-fifth of workers and managers across a wide range of industries and company sizes report that a coworker’s on- or off-the-job drinking jeopardized their own productivity and safety.  

Some facts about drugs in the workplace:

Workers who report having three or more jobs in the previous five years are about twice as likely to be current or past year users of illegal drugs as those who have had two or fewer jobs.  


70% of the estimated 14.8 million Americans who use illegal drugs are employed.   


Marijuana is the most commonly used and abused illegal drug by employees, followed by cocaine, with prescription drug use steadily increasing.

How big is America's drug problem?

 The problem is big! The U.S. Government reports that, in the last month alone, 9.7 million Americans used marijuana and 1.9 million used cocaine! 


What every employer should know about employee drug abuse includes these two facts about illicit drugs:  

  •  USA with only 'five' percent (5%) of the entire world's population - buys and consumes 60% of the entire world's supply of illicit drugs. 
  • In the U.S., 77% of all illicit drug users are EMPLOYED either full or part-time!    


Is employee drug abuse really a problem for small business owners as well as for Corporate America?

Almost eight out of ten (77%) of Americans 18+ that use illicit drugs are employed full or part-time. That's 9.4 MILLION workers involved in employee drug abuse!. How many of "those" employees work at YOUR company?  


As a result of employee drug abuse, the vast majority of businesses - small and large - suffer from substantially decreased productivity and increased accidents (accidents both on and off the job- the latter, of course, affecting attendance, and work performance while on the job). Employee drug abuse also dramatically increases medical claims and workers' compensation payouts. These more frequent claims, in turn, directly cause increases in the premiums paid by the employer for medical and workers' comp coverage. In fact, in the case of "medical" premiums, even employees end up paying higher contributions out of their paycheck every month!  


Additionally, employee drug abuse definitely leads to the abusers' increased absenteeism and taking more than the average number of "sick days"- time off often paid for by their employer. While abusers are "buzzed" on the job, they are responsible for more product defects, missed deadlines, incomplete projects, or inaccurate work. To support their drug habit, abusers are responsible for higher than normal instances of employee theft- not just from their company, but from their fellow employees. They also can be counted on for more employee equipment loss, employee equipment damage, and other problems- including drug-dealing to support their own drug habit! Roger Smith, the former chairman of General Motors, said, "...employee drug abuse costs GM $1 billion a year."  


What are employers doing about the employee drug abuse problem? Hundreds of thousands of employers - small and large - are now adopting and implementing one or more of the following: company-wide anti-drug abuse policies; comprehensive employee drug abuse education and drug awareness programs; drug testing programs; employee assistance (EAP) and rehabilitation programs. More than 100 million drug tests were performed in the U.S. last year.    

Is drug testing accurate?

Yes, when done properly. The typical procedure is a two-step process in which a urine sample (specimen) is divided in half, and the first half is tested using a relatively simple, inexpensive, yet highly accurate "screen" (usually an “immunoassay”). If the result of that initial screen is "negative" the lab will report the test as "negative" and no additional testing will be performed on that specimen. On the other hand, if the result of the first test is “positive”, then a second test is conducted on the second half of the original sample using a different testing process that serves to "confirm" whether or not the first analysis was accurate.   


This second “confirmatory” test is performed using a more sophisticated and more expensive technique such as gas chromatography/mass spectrometry (GC/MS) or liquid chromatography/mass spectrometry (LC/MS/MS). Only if both halves of a specimen show up “positive” by these two separate testing methods (and using portions of the same urine) is it then reported as a “positive” by the lab. The first test by immunoassay is 97-99% accurate, while the second test (by GC/MS or LC/MS/MS) is virtually 100.00% accurate from a scientific standpoint. Because of this Industry-standard, two-step, "fail-safe" process, the lab's report of the specimen as "positive" (AFTER a second, confirmatory test) will - virtually 100% of the time - be upheld in a Court of Law if the person who was tested should choose to try and legally "challenge" that result.    

Can one “beat” a drug test?

Yes, you "can", but the odds against it are very long and getting longer all the time. The opportunity for adulteration or substitution generally is limited by the integrity of the collection and testing process, and at any rate is detectable in most cases at the laboratory. The increasing popularity of “on-site” specimen collection by professionals has greatly contributed to the reduction of specimen adulteration or substitution by donors attempting to cheat the system.   

What about “false positives”?

  • Most of the popular stories about "things" that falsely trigger a “positive” drug-test result are based on misconceptions. These "things" normally either:  
  • Don’t show up at all (e.g., “second-hand” marijuana smoke does NOT trigger a positive) 
  • Are not detected at a sufficient level to produce a false positive (e.g., a normal amount of ingested poppy seeds will NOT trigger a positive for "opiates")· 
  • Are easily distinguishable as "false" in the laboratory   


Some activities, such as a non-pot-smoker being sealed in a phone booth with four marijuana smokers who smoke pot non-stop for eight hours, "might" trigger a false positive, but for most people, this scenario does not come close to being a valid concern. What does occasionally happen to cause a positive, though, is properly used prescription medicines or some other legitimate justification for testing “positive” on a drug test. This is where the Medical Review Officer (MRO) becomes invaluable in the process of “confirming” lab positives.   


The MRO speaks directly with the employee involved. The MRO gives the employee a chance to prove (e.g., by presenting a prescription) that the drugs found in their system were legitimately prescribed. In such cases where proof is presented, then, the employee (although found "positive" by the lab test) will - instead - be officially (and correctly) reported to their employer by the MRO as "negative".  

To help prevent employee drug abuse, is employee drug testing legal?

There are some restrictions on employee drug testing in a few states. But, generally, employers have a right to establish a written drug test company policy that requires that employees be drug-free and to implement employee drug testing as part of their program. In any case, federal (DOT) regulations take precedence over any local and state restrictions in the case of DOT-regulated companies.  

How common is employee drug testing?

In 1983, only 3% of the Fortune 200 companies were testing one or more classes of job applicants or employees. By 1991, that number had climbed to 97%.  

Is it any business of an employer’s "what" an employee does in the privacy of his or her own home?

First of all, there is no Constitutional or other legally protected right to engage in illegal conduct in the privacy of one’s own home or anyone else’s. In any case, employee drug testing is not done "in" the employee's home! Employee testing is always done while the employee is "on the job", about to start work, or immediately after their shift.   


Regardless, it is the employer’s business when employee drug abuse OFF the job will affect performance or safety ON the job. No matter the "timing" of drug use, employee drug abuse that can adversely affect job attendance or performance can and should be the concern of the employee's employer. The employer should have a right to be concerned about an employee's substance abuse "at home", or "the night before" if it may adversely impact on his business production and on his and other's workplace safety "the next day". (U.S. employers have a legal obligation to provide each and every one of their employees with "a healthy and safe workplace environment")   Employee drug abuse was documented in a study which found, that of those employees seeking help on a confidential “cocaine hotline”

  • 64% admitted that drugs had adversely affected their job performance 
  • 44% said they had sold drugs to other employees 
  • 18% said they had stolen from co-workers to support their habits   (Why should ANY employer have to put up with this at a business that THEY OWN?)   


Another study by the U.S. government found that those involved in employee drug abuse are: 

  • 3.6 times more likely to injure themselves or another person in a workplace accident 
  • 5 times more likely to be injured in an accident off the job which, in turn, affects their attendance and/or performance on the job 
  • 5 times more likely to file a Workers' Compensation claim 
  • One-third less productive than non-drug using employees 
  • Incur 300% higher medical costs than non-drug using employees    

But don’t many people use drugs without losing control?

Some start that way, but drug-use tends to escalate with time. Using “a little” turns into using “a lot”. Also, there is often a “gateway” effect: the initial use of what many perceive as less serious drugs (e.g., marijuana) can lead to the use of more serious drugs (e.g., cocaine); sporadic use can develop into chronic use, and people who never considered addiction a possibility for themselves personally can become desperate addicts. Further, the psychology of addiction is such that it includes a process of denial; addicts very seldom admit their addiction voluntarily.   


Furthermore, even a “casual” user can present a substantial safety and health risk on the job to themselves, to their co-workers, and to the company’s customers.  

What about drug or alcohol-related crime on the job?

Employee drug abuse has a major impact on workplace crime. Employees who have a $1,000-$3,000 a month narcotic habit do not usually support that habit with “just” their paycheck alone. General Motors, for example, has arrested over 500 employees for dealing drugs on the job! Crime in the forms of stealing from co-workers, blackmail, ties to organized crime, and the violence associated with drug dealing all threaten a health and safety workplace environment wherever drug abusers are employed. Further, the workplace often provides the perfect cover for buying and selling drugs.   


In fact, drug-abuse treatment professionals state that a drug abuser's "JOB" is usually the one thing abusers will do ANYTHING to hold on to, for several reasons:   

  • Denial- employees convince themselves that people who "work" (like themselves) are not addicted 
  • Money- employees need a consistent paycheck to help support their drug habits 
  • Opportunity- employees are provided with, both chances to steal (from their employer and from fellow employees) and also to deal drugs that they would not have if they were unemployed   IT'S A "GIVEN": 

If you have drug users in your company, you probably have drug dealers in your company!   In very large part, it will vary depending on a person's physiological makeup (e.g., height, weight, age, current state of health, state of mind). Other considerations include the person's "frequency" (1x per day? 3-5x per day?) and "quantity" of use and the "length of time" (days? weeks? months?) of their drug use prior to testing. However, for most people, detectable levels of the following drugs stay in the body for these periods of time:   

  • Marijuana, 2-5 days (the daily, heavy user can sometimes be detected up to 30+ days) 
  • Cocaine, 1-2 days 
  • Amphetamines, 1-2 days 
  • Opiates, 1-3 days 
  • Phencyclidine (PCP), 1-8 days 
  • Alcohol, less than 24 hours   

For chronic users, drugs (other than alcohol) can be retained in the system much longer after their last use—up to 60 days in extreme situations.  

OK, so cocaine is serious, but just how dangerous can marijuana really be?

Marijuana can be a highly addictive drug. It is retained in the fatty tissue of the body for several days and it can cause impairment long after the “high” wears off. A study was conducted at Stanford University in which airline pilots smoked relatively weak government-issued marijuana cigarettes for the test. Each pilot was then tested on computerized flight simulators. The testing resulted in simulated airline “crashes” right after the marijuana use. More alarming, however, was the fact that it also resulted in “crashes” FULLY 24 HOURS LATER, when every pilot reported "no residual effects" and each had stated they had "no reservations" about flying!   


Employee drug testing PAYS because drug abuse COSTS your company LOSSES!   


An incident at American Airlines showed the dangers of marijuana in the workplace. One computer operator who was high on marijuana while working at the airline’s central reservations system failed to load a tape into the computer at a critical juncture. The result of this employee drug abuse was 8 hours of downtime for the entire reservations system, significant data erasures, and a $19 million loss for the airline.   

What specimens are commonly used for employee drug testing?

Urine specimen analysis is the most common by far. Blood analysis is not common because it’s “invasive” (needle used). “Oral” fluids analysis has recently become available, however, it does not do as good a job detecting marijuana use as is provided by testing urine. Hair specimen analysis is gaining in use. It will detect drug use as far back as ninety (90) days, much longer than it is detectable in the urine. Random hair testing is the method of choice for the majority of casinos.  

What about employee alcohol abuse?

Alcohol remains the number one drug of abuse in America. It hurts more employees and their families than all other drugs combined. Furthermore, particularly among younger workers, poly-drug abuse (involving alcohol and other drugs) is increasingly common.  

Aren’t there important individual rights at stake?

Yes, very important! That is precisely why employers should make every reasonable effort to minimize the intrusiveness of their employee drug abuse prevention programs to their workers. Employees have the rights to privacy, confidentiality, accuracy in testing if the company tests for drugs, and a written drug testing policy that is fairly and consistently enforced.   


In order to guarantee these employee rights, employers should take the following four steps:   

  • Develop a written drug testing policy for the employees that is well thought-out and communicated 
  • Apply even-handed enforcement per that policy- no "favorites", no exceptions (even if a friend or family member is involved) 
  • Preserve an employee’s privacy—making sure that ONLY those with a “need to know” will know about any violation of the company’s written drug test policy 
  • Use laboratory "confirmation" tests, maintain strict chain-of-custody, use only accredited laboratories and a certified medical review officer (MRO). Totally uniform and fair application to the workforce at large is absolutely essential. 
  • Moreover, the safety of ALL your employees, their efficient performance, product integrity, and employee morale are also legitimate interests which must be served. There is also too little said about the rights of employees who do NOT abuse drugs. NON-users have an absolute right to work in a safe and healthy working environment and to NOT have their jobs and benefits undermined by drug abusers!  

In general, what are employees’ views about employee drug abuse and workplace drug testing?

A recent national Gallup survey of employees demonstrated an increasing intolerance among worker for employee drug abuse and an acceptance of their employers taking strong steps to provide a drug-free workplace. The respondents said:   

  • 28% of employees who were asked what they thought was the greatest problem facing the United States today answered “drugs.” That response was given more than two-and-a-half times more frequently than the second most common answer. 
  • 22% of employees whose companies have drug testing programs feel it is “not strong enough,” while only 2% think it is “too strong.” 
  • 97+% of employees favor drug testing in the workplace at least under some circumstances.  

Does employee drug abuse really affect "me"?

Yes! Employee drug abuse affects all citizens in the form of higher taxes, higher insurance rates, more crime, higher health care costs, and higher consumer prices. It also affects most of us as employees. A major telecommunications company reports that 40% of its health care costs are attributable to substance abuse!     

Do company employee drug-abuse prevention programs work?

First: drug testing WORKS. As a result of advertised, high-profile drug-abuse prevention programs enacted at many companies, most drug users don’t even apply to work there (at companies that do drug testing). Some of those who do apply will then stop using for fear of being caught, and some who are later “caught” will often undergo treatment and go straight.   


There are numerous success stories in both the private and public sectors, but perhaps none as dramatic as the U.S. Navy’s: a decrease since the 1980’s to under 4% presently (down from 28%) of its active personnel engaged in illicit drug use (i.e., found positive for one or more drugs when tested). This is specifically due to Navy’s implementation back in the 80’s of a comprehensive drug abuse prevention program - including monthly random drug testing of all active and reserve duty personnel- that program continues even today. Yes, employee drug testing is a necessity today, and yes, it works!