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Drug and Alcohol Abuse: The Hidden Toll on the Construction Industry

Stakeholders in the construction industry looking to improve profits would do well to look within their own operations. The financial loss due to drinking and substance abuse is estimated to be in the billions of dollars per year.

According to a report issued by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), substance and alcohol abuse has been negatively affecting the mining and construction industry by way of lost productivity, workplace accidents and injuries, absenteeism, low morale and illness. A key finding of the report was that these industries had far and away the highest rates of abuse, even when relativized for gender and age across other industries.

The United States is the second largest construction market worldwide, with a 10 percent share and more than eight million workers. U.S. private construction spending reached about $687 billion in 2014.

There is no denying that construction work is inherently dangerous, stressful and physically demanding. As a result, the Drug-Free Workplace Act of 1988 gives the right to (but does not require) employers to establish drug testing policies and to have workers submit to drug and alcohol testing. The 1991 Omnibus Transportation Employee Testing Act requires transportation industry employers that have employees in “safety-sensitive” positions, such as commercial drivers, to have drug-free workplace programs, and the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) enforces this act. But labor and employment laws that relate to substance abuse policy for construction employers can vary from state to state.

It’s important for every industry at every level—and particularly those with high-risk occupations—to be vigilant against alcohol and drug abuse. An efficient drug testing and treatment program can catch problems before they have such a devastating impact on the work environment. Drug testing is not an issue of invading one’s privacy rights. It’s a matter of creating and maintaining a safe working culture for everyone involved. Alcohol and/or drug abuse in a heavy machinery environment is simply suicidal.

The U.S. Department of Labor reports that during the past 10 years, 15 percent of construction workers admitted to using illicit drugs, and 18 percent admitted to heavy alcohol consumption.

But how many more are unwilling to reveal that they, too, have abuse issues?

OSHA reports that almost 18 percent of all private industry fatalities in 2011 were in the construction field. The most common causes of fatalities in the industry included falls, being struck by an object, being trapped between objects and electrocution.

While there are numerous state and local laws regulating substance abuse testing, there is no federal law on the books requiring companies to establish and enforce a policy in this regard. Creating a uniform policy and drug-free training program has been a significant factor in lowering the percentage of workers who wrestle with abuse. And just as importantly, it helps guide employers to be more effective at handling such situations without incurring legal liabilities.

There is a critical element that must go hand-in-hand with drug testing and the handling of the employees. Otherwise, employers may run into an unwillingness by employees to come forward. This often missing piece of the puzzle is the establishment of an effective employee assistance program (EAP) that is intended to help employees deal with and overcome substance abuse, while knowing that they’ll still have a job.

Giving an employee the opportunity to get straight without getting fired not only makes it easier for the worker to deal with his problem; it also helps break the workplace pattern of abuse and create a safe space in which to work. It is often far easier to correct an experienced worker than to hire and train a new one. EAPs have consistently proven to be effective.

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