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What Can You Do to Help Keep Your Workplace Drug-Free?

A safe, healthy, and drug-free workplace is everybody's responsibility, and the United States Department of Labor wants to take the opportunity to educate people about steps they can take to help a coworker who may have an alcohol or drug problem.

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A safe, healthy, and drug-free workplace is everybody's responsibility, and the United States Department of Labor wants to take the opportunity to educate people about steps they can take to help a coworker who may have an alcohol or drug problem. By knowing what to do (and what not to do), employees can play a powerful role in improving workplace safety and encouraging coworkers with alcohol or drug problems to seek help.

Most people know someone, perhaps a family member, friend or coworker, who has been affected by alcohol or drug abuse in some way. Though some of the signs may vary by drug of choice, what you see that person doing and how you interact with him or her is often the same, regardless of the substance being used. Both on and off the job, symptoms of alcohol or drug use may be physical (chills, smell of alcohol, sweating, weight loss, and physical deterioration); emotional (increased aggression, anxiety, burnout, denial, depression, and paranoia); and/or behavioral (excessive talking, impaired coordination, irritability, lack of energy, limited attention span, and poor motivation). It is important to note, however, that if an employee displays these symptoms, it does not necessarily mean he or she has a substance abuse problem.

Signs that substance use may be a workplace hazard include the following:

  • Creating mishaps, being careless and repeatedly making mistakes

  • Damaging equipment or property

  • Being involved in numerous accidents

  • Displaying careless actions in the operation of hazardous materials or equipment

  • Being unreliable, not being where he or she should be

  • Showing a lack of detail on performing routine job duties

  • Being unwilling to follow directions and being argumentative

  • Giving elaborate, unbelievable excuses for not fulfilling responsibilities

  • Not carrying one's load

  • Taking unnecessary risks

  • Disregarding safety for self and others

For your own safety, it is important that you not tolerate such conduct by a coworker using alcohol or drugs. However, this can be a challenge—sometimes it may seem easier to ignore the problem and unwittingly enable the employee's behavior to continue. For example, you may cover up for a coworker by providing alibis or doing his or her work; develop reasons why his or her continued use of alcohol or drugs is understandable; or just avoid contact altogether. Trying to take responsibility by throwing out the person's drugs or making idle threats also tends to be ineffective.

Worker alcohol and drug use cannot be taken lightly, especially in environments where workers rely on each other for safety. While supervisors can confront workers whose behavior affects their job performance, coworkers may be able to help before this occurs. However, it is important for employees to understand that it is not their responsibility to diagnose problems. Rather, they should observe behavior and focus on safety. Though notifying a supervisor may eventually be necessary, a coworker may have significant influence using the right approach.

If You Suspect Someone Has a Problem

  • Identify with the person and show concern. Say that you have noticed a change in behavior and express your concern for their safety and that of other workers.

  • Describe your observation of their behavior, using specific days and/or times rather than saying "you always" and other similar phrases.

  • Connect the behavior to the alcohol or drug use (or suspected use).

  • Urge the person to get help and offer information about how to get it. If your company has an employee assistance program (EAP) the person may be able to access confidential, short-term counseling and referral services as a benefit of their employment. For more information about local resources, you can also call 1-800-662-HELP (4357) or visit http://www.findtreatment.samhsa.gov.

  • Tell the person you will no longer hide the problem for him or her, but do not make idle threats. Be willing and able to follow through.

  • Explain how the person's problem use affects you and others at work.

  • Reconfirm your concern. You do not need to get him or her to admit to a substance problem. You must stand your ground with your coworker, be consistent with your actions and be willing to follow through on any threats you make.

It is important to note, however, that even after confronting a coworker using these steps, he or she may still be unwilling to accept or acknowledge the alcohol or drug problem. When you have done all that you can and the person's behavior is such that it directly affects you and your ability to do your job, it may be appropriate to involve others. This may mean taking your concerns about safety to a supervisor, who may have more options through the workplace to help the person get assistance.