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 companies give employees a second chance. One way to enforce a policy is with random drug testing, but you will need to carefully explain how it works and why it’s being implemented.

Once a policy’s in place, the employee manual should be signed by each employee to indicate that the policy has been read and that the employee is familiar with the policy and the consequences of infractions. It’s also important to assign someone responsibility for enforcing the policy. If your company has a safety supervisor, that person’s responsibilities may include guaranteeing compliance with all of the rules laid out in the company handbook, including the substance abuse policy.

Finally, you may consider posting a summary of your safety policy on your website. One example can be seen at the website of Independent Roofing Co., of Omaha, Neb. Their “Residential” page spells it out, saying in part:

“Criteria in place to ensure safety of our employees and others include monthly safety education meetings required of all employees, job specific safety plans, drug testing and a zero tolerance drug and alcohol policy and random job site checks for safety.”

Strike One, You’re Out?

Some states offer discounts on workers’ comp premiums to companies that maintain a drug-testing program in accordance with state requirements. But a zero-tolerance policy is not required by law, unless your company’s working under federal contract.

The National Roofing Legal Resource Center hashes it out this way: 

“Before creating a drug-testing policy, you must first establish an attitude regarding illegal drug use by employees. Many roofing contractors decide to take a zero-tolerance approach to employee drug use. Testing positive for illegal drug use is grounds for immediate discharge for these roofing contractors. However, the law does not require a zero-tolerance approach to employee drug use. Indeed, other roofing contractors may decide to implement a drug-testing program that provides employees with a second chance. These roofing contractors elect to prohibit illegal drug use, but rather than discharge offending employees for their first offense, employees who test positive for the presence of illegal drugs are given the opportunity to successfully complete a drug rehabilitation program as a condition of continuing employment.”

If someone tests positive and your policy permits rehabilitation, your best bet would be to steer him or her to an Employee Assistance Program (ESP)—defined by First Call, an employee assistance organization, as “multifaceted programs designed to assist employees with personal programs that affect their job performance.” According to Henderson Consulting & EAP Services, “Companies with the most successful drug-free workplace programs utilize a comprehensive EAP that covers a wide spectrum of services. They also characterize addiction as a treatable disease and offer employees the same health coverage and job security they would have if they were treated for any other illness.”

If you don’t have an EAP but are considering putting one in place, know that EAP providers offer both fixed-fee contracts (you contract directly with the provider for services such as counseling, employee assessment, or educational programs) and fee-for-service contracts (you refer an employee to the EAP). EAPs, says Workforce.com, “are almost always free for employees, and they are mostly voluntary. The goal is not to punish an employee but rather to encourage that worker to receive the services needed to help deal with personal issues.” That gives you, the owner, an alternative to zero tolerance and a mechanism for dealing with the problem.

About the Author


About the Author


Philadelphia-based writer Jim Cory is a senior contributing editor to Professional Remodeler who specializes in covering the remodeling and home improvement industry. Reach him at coryjim@earthlink.net.

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