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Substance abuse in the workplace

Sheena Mayers

Substance abuse in the workplace

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The advent of substance abuse in the workplace is a contentious topic. However, in the contemporary work/business environment in Barbados, more private and public sector organizations have seen the need to hold frank discussions on the topic. This is why on November 19, the Barbados Employers’ Confederation held an open forum on substance abuse.
The business community has become more acutely aware of the impact substance abuse has on health and safety. The Safety And Health At Work Act 2005 highlights the duty of care an employer has for employees and the responsibility to provide competent co-workers. This has proven to be a great impetus for employers to roll out preventative substance abuse policies.
The financial impact of substance abuse cannot be ignored and research showed that for 2012 the annual productivity loss for alcohol and drug abuse has been estimated at £100 billion (BDS$322 billion).  
Substance abuse is undeniably directly related to one’s safety and health and there are varying ways in which employers can and have been tackling the topic. These include: The implementation of substance abuse policies, clearly denoting the employers’ position on the use of any substances which could impair an employee’s judgement and conduct; illegal or legal, as well as the ramifications for the use of these substances, usually outlined in an organizations’ disciplinary code. The implementation of drug and alcohol testing policies and implementation of employee assistance programmes are other methods.
Although organizational policies, once fairly written and law-abiding, usually cause little to no trouble for employers, with specific reference to drug and alcohol testing policies, employers must be mindful. Preventative measures have been one of the primary tools utilized by employers to tackle the evolving problem.
Most recently, the Barbados Defence Force publicly declared that since the implementation and utilization of their drug and alcohol testing policy in 2006, a total of 3 000 employees had been tested; some repeatedly and 27 dismissed as illegal substances were found in their systems at the time of testing. These types of policies are being implemented around the world at a rapid pace.
Despite its effectiveness as a prevention measure, the advent of drug testing at work brings into question the erosion of civil liberties; none more so than the violation of one’s privacy, which is protected under the Human Rights Act 1988.
There are also possible legal and industrial relations related issues which could arise. Even though there is no legislation speaking directly to how the use of drugs and illegal substances in the workplace should be handled, employers must become informed on how to go about articulately writing and implementing policies which are inherently non-discriminatory. One way to ensure that bias is minimized is through documenting reasonable suspicion of substance abuse prior to executing any action.
The Code of Practice: Management Of Alcohol And Drug Related Issues In The Workplace (1999), published by the International Labour Organization (ILO), is a guidance book which “presents a variety of multidisciplinary approaches to the prevention, treatment and rehabilitation of alcohol and drug related problems in the workplace.” It is an extremely useful reference for employers and is available at
Businesses considering implementing a policy of this nature should in addition be mindful of the following, during the compilation stage:
How robust do the policies and procedure laid out in the document need to be? Be mindful of the nature of work of your staff, in all areas. Question whether it may be necessary to outline that some staff be tested more often than others; example: drivers and messengers when compared to office staff. What the policy will entail is key and framers should aim to be as clear as possible.
All current and potential staff should be made fully aware of the policy and its implication; as with any other policy which forms part of their employment contract.
Be mindful that a positive test has the propensity to stain a persons’ character and career, thus only qualified medical practitioners or agencies should be obtained to execute the testing. Once the system is in place it will be essential that all parties have confidence in the testing procedure.
The efficacy of such policies have become undeniably useful, however, organizations and businesses must remain cognizant of all the implications. Nonetheless compiling and implementing a drug and alcohol testing policy should not be done without the appropriate guidance and research and should be accompanied by a workplace education programme to ensure that employees fully understand the need for such policies.