Zero Tolerance for Substance Abusers? Not Always

Studies show that substance abuse is higher in construction than in almost any other industry. That's one more reason why every company should have a policy.

December 18, 2015
Caution sign with drunk person

He came in late again. Face in flames, booze on his breath. You’re going to put him on a roof? Or send him to someone’s house to install windows?

If you’ve never had this problem, you’re definitely in a minority among home improvement or construction company owners. When it comes to drug and alcohol abuse, “the construction industry is right up there with the entertainment industry,” says the National Precast Concrete Association (NPCA), an association for concrete producers and installers. NPCA has published a chart showing just how illicit drug and heavy alcohol use in construction compares with “all industries,” which is, typically, about double.

Scope of the Problem

Working on jobsites involves lots of stress, and people often choose to treat that stress via drugs or alcohol. You can look the other way—many owners do—but the short- and long-term consequences of ignoring that behavior are many, including loss of production, excessive absenteeism, extra sick leave, increased injuries, above average accident rates, fatal accidents, and premature death. Additional problems can include loss of efficiency, theft, illegal activities on the job (e.g., selling drugs), higher turnover, and lower morale. 

Abuse is widespread throughout the U.S. workforce and is prevalent in construction. Here are a few facts from the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, published in a study released earlier this year:

  • 24 percent of workers report drinking during the workday at least once during the previous year;
  • 70 percent of the estimated 14.8 million Americans who use illegal drugs are employed;
  • Workers with alcohol problems were 2.7 times more likely than workers without drinking problems to have injury-related absences;
  • At least 11 percent of the victims of fatal workplace accidents had been drinking.

So the problem is not just your problem. But other studies show that chronic drug and alcohol abusers who are employed—and that would be most of them—tend to gravitate toward companies with no policy or testing protocol in place, which would be small companies.

How to Respond

If you think your company has a problem, how should you respond? First, your company’s safety policies and procedures should include a written policy addressing drug and alcohol use, and that policy should be part of your employee manual or company handbook. The Construction Coalition for a Drug- and Alcohol-Free Workplace offers a Model Substance Abuse Policy, and the Small Business Administration offers a guide on how to write a drug and alcohol policy yourself.

The manual should make clear what the consequences are for violating company drug and alcohol rules. Companies using a Zero Tolerance policy simply terminate employees on the first offense, while other