The Importance of a Good Drug and Alcohol Policy in the Workplace

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5 September 2023

The Importance of a Good Drug and Alcohol Policy in the Workplace

Consequences of Substance Abuse at Work

The use of alcohol or drugs at work is extremely problematic for employers. In the worst cases it can cause death or accidents that lead to death or injuries. It can also increase absenteeism and it reduce productivity. Reductions in efficiency, bad decisions, hangovers that affect performance, theft, illegal drug selling at work, and an increased need for training and disciplinary procedures are also consequences of substance abuse in the workplace.

Why Have a Good Drug and Alcohol Policy?

Looking more closely at some figures the NCADD identified that employees with alcohol issues had a 2.7 times more likely chance to have an absence related to an injury, that 35% of patients at a hospital emergency department with an injury that they got at work were identified as “at risk” drinkers, and that where workplace deaths were concerned, 11% of those that died were found to have been drinking. In addition to this, the Institute of Alcohol Studies in the UK carried out a study which identified that those employed in office based professions are more likely to drink during the week than others, and this impacts productivity.

Looking at the costs of this, binge drinking is estimated to be costing the U.S. economy $807 per employee per year, or in other words, $249 billion each year. This was based on a study carried out by the CDC which found that hangovers alone in the United States cost employers $4 billion per year. HRM Canada suggests that hangovers are costing employers in Canada as much as $24 billion per year.

With regard to the use of drugs, 70% of those using illegal substances are employed, and that those who use illegal drugs are more likely to change jobs often; three or more job changes in the past five years. All of these are very good reasons for instituting a good drug and alcohol policy in the workplace since no organization wants to experience the loss of productivity, higher turnover, and greatly increased safety risks as a result of alcohol or drug use at work (or after work to the point that it affects work the next day).

Features of a Good Drug and Alcohol Policy

According to the Institute for a Drug Free Workplace, a good drug and alcohol policy in the workplace will explain why the company put the policy in place, how the employees are expected to behave, and what employees can expect the implications to be for any violations of the policy. The policy should first explain that the organization wishes to protect its employees from harm. The policy also needs to outline that the organization wants to protect everyone, including suppliers, customers and the general public that come into contact with employees of the organization as well.

Free Download: What Your Company's Drug and Alcohol Policy May Be Missing (and How to Get It Right)

As a result of this, the organization has implemented a drug and alcohol policy, in acknowledgement of the fact that the safety, health, and well being of both employees and those that come into contact with employees could be threatened by employees drinking alcohol or taking mind altering substances.

Once the reasoning behind a policy is clear, the people covered by the policy must be made clear. It should be included that the organization wants a substance free workplace for everyone. Following this, the policy needs to clearly highlight that the organization bans entirely the use of alcohol or drugs at work.

A drug and alcohol policy should always remove confusion from employee and management's minds as well. It should clearly explain what type of drugs are being tested for, when a specific employee can be tested ( such as pre-employment, post incident, near miss, random, return to work, follow up testing, and reasonable suspicion), what type of specimen will be required for testing (urine, hair, or oral fluid), and what cutoff concentrations are being set for the testing.

A good policy will clearly lay out penalties as well. It should make it clear that employees who violate the policy will face disciplinary action, possible termination, and the possibility of criminal prosecution. It is important that both expectations and ramifications be outlined clearly for the purpose of good understandability. The consequences of a positive drug test result from the Medical Review Officer (MRO) and the process that will be followed after a positive result is returned must be detailed specifically, and followed exactly.

Other items to consider including in the policy would be guidelines used to identifying those that may be displaying the behavior of a person that is impaired, or reasonable suspicion. These guidelines must be supported with training so that supervisors and managers know what they are looking for and actions are consistent. The policy should also define if there will be any help provided for those that are found to be using alcohol or substances. In some cases, confidential treatment, meetings with a substance abuse professional, or other counseling services might be offered. With the amount of resources and funds devoted to hiring and training employees, employers may find it preferable to assist struggling employees rather than terminate their employment.

Random Drug Testing

Defining the company stance on alcohol and drug testing may be more complex. Random drug testing may not be suitable for all organizations. However, for some, such as those with employees that are involved in transportation, these types of policies can be very useful. In fact, the U.S. Department of Transportation recommends them in this case. Specifically, it is recommended in these cases to use random testing as this can save lives, prevent injuries, reduce the liability of the employer, and help workers identify their own problem behaviors. In such organizations it is suggested to test workers based on job function rather than job level in the organization, such as supervisor, or volunteer. Whatever the policy a company decides on with regards to random testing, it has to follow to applicable legislation and regulations.


Everyone should receive training in how to carry out the company policy. For managers, this training should include what to do if problems are identified, and when to take disciplinary action. Sometimes situations pertaining to alcohol and drugs are not black and white, and guidance needs to be available from the Human Resources Department team to help. In addition, employees need to be sufficiently trained so that they understand what the policy means and how it applies to them, as well as the consequences for them if they do not behave in the prescribed way.

Employees should also receive training on what to do in the situation of their identifying a colleague with alcohol or drug problems at work, and how to handle the situation in a confidential but safe manner, to protect all who are involved. No matter how comprehensive and well designed a drug and alcohol policy may be, it is worthless if it is not followed consistently and accurately. Exceptions and "close enough" follow through only damages the effectiveness of a policy and could open up a company to legal ramifications.

Regular Review of Policies

A good drug and alcohol policy should always be reviewed over time. Situations change as the business develops new strategies and approaches, and in addition the legislative environment can change. This means that organizations need to keep on top of what is and what is not allowed, along with making sure that they comply with regulations while still meeting their own business needs. Revisiting the policy every year or two is important to make sure that changes are made in a timely manner. In addition to this, keeping employees up to date on the policy and any changes that have been implemented is important.

If employees are able to claim that they were not aware of the policy when an incident occurs, this can create a legal problems for the employer. Having an employee sign a form stating they have received a copy of the policy, read it, and understand it can help to prevent some of the difficulties that can arise for an employer after an incident of drug or alcohol abuse.