Drug abuse and the workplace: what you need to know

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As an employer, you have a responsibility to your employees. Employers are required to ensure that the workplace is a safe environment for their employees. Sometimes, this is dealing with issues concerning equipment or the work environment, but sometimes safety can be compromised by the behaviour of employees themselves. Employees who are abusing drugs in the workplace may not only put themselves at risk, but also their colleagues.

As an employer, you cannot control what your employees do in their own time, but when substance abuse begins to impact on their work or affect the safety of others, it becomes your concern.

As an employer, you need to understand how likely such problems are in your industry. Risk of drug abuse varies from industry to industry, with accounting and the sciences being low risk and law enforcement and medicine high risk. A business can be adversely affected by an employee abusing drugs. First, drugs are illegal and if you allow drugs to be taken on your premises, you could face legal charges. There are also commonly problems with absenteeism and poor productivity, and there may be safety issues for other workers as well as the public.

Employers should develop a company policy to prevent drug abuse. It may be necessary to make it clear that alcohol and other substances will not be permitted in the workplace. In recent years, drug testing of employees, for example, an oral fluid lab test, has increased following growing awareness of drug issues. However, employees can only be tested with their consent, and it should be clearly stated in the employee contract or staff handbook.

Look out for signs that an employee may be abusing drugs. Common signs are increased absence or lateness, poor personal hygiene, drastic weight change and bloodshot eyes. Drug abuse is often not simply a case of an employee behaving badly. The abuse may be due to physical or psychological problems. Even though an employee may be abusing drugs, his or her substance abuse should be kept confidential.

Before confronting an employee you suspect of abusing drugs, talk to a lawyer. Find out about ways in which you can help employees overcome their problem with drugs. There are many centres across the country that can help people with addiction problems. You may wish to dismiss the employee, but you should consider this carefully. Dismissing someone for drug abuse does not help the individual – in fact, it can make the situation worse. It may also lead to problems for the employer if the employee sues for unfair dismissal and an employment tribunal considers that the employee was dismissed with no attempt by the employer to offer help. However, if the employee is doing a job that is safety critical, you must not allow him or her to continue working in this position, but move the employee to a less critical job.

Allowing someone to take time off work to deal with a substance abuse problem may be necessary. Bear in mind that it will often cost less to allow someone to take time of work than it would to hire and train a new employee. You should suggest to the employee to go seek professional help to deal with the substance abuse problem.

Substance abuse can be an issue in many types of work environments, and workplace safety and the safety of the people under your employ are critical. It is important to identify any employees who may be showing signs of drug abuse.

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