Even under the best circumstances, construction work is strenuous and stressful. Unfortunately, the construction industry also has one of the highest rates of drug and alcohol use. Not a good combination!

The most recent data show that 12.3 and 15.7 percent of the construction workforce are, respectively, drug or heavy alcohol users.   This compares to 7.8 and 8.1 percent for the general population. Studies vary on the role that alcohol and drugs play in construction accidents, with figures ranging as high as 50 percent.

Though the loss of life is the most serious consequence of substance abuse, other serious costs include lost work days, legal expenses, health insurance claims, employee theft, fraud and workers’ compensation claims. Drug and alcohol use lead to errors in judgment, poor job performance, low motivation and, in turn, low morale among co-workers on a site where substance abuse is tolerated. Ultimately, all the costs of substance abuse have a negative impact on a contractor’s bottom line.

What can be done?

An increasing number of federal and state laws now require drug and alcohol testing in specific circumstances, and more and more employers require it as a matter of course. Because LIUNA wants the safest possible work environments for Laborers, the union supports drug free workplace programs (DFWPs). At the same time, it guards against unfair treatment of Laborers by encouraging signatory employers to adopt programs with clear procedures and a treatment component to help violators get themselves together and get back to work.

To address the human and financial costs of substance abuse, a comprehensive DFWP should be included in every company safety program and every Laborer training program. A comprehensive program should have the following components:

  • A written policy and procedures
  • Worker education on the health effects of substance abuse
  • Supervisor training on (a) recognizing potential drug or alcohol use and impairment and (b) confronting workers
  • Rehabilitation options

The HP Division provides information, technical assistance, consultation and training to LIUNA local unions, health and welfare funds and signatory employers in the areas of substance abuse that may affect the health and safety of Laborers, both at work and at home. While some may view DFWPs as invasions of privacy, no employee should want to work on a site with workers impaired by drugs or alcohol, and no responsible contractor should want to conduct business on such a site.

Safeguards and rehabilitation

By having a written policy with procedures that informs workers on why and how the DFWP is implemented and educates supervisors on how to carry out the program, an employer minimizes the danger that drug testing can be used in a harassing manner. Because the procedures make clear the way testing will be conducted and spell out minimum standards for labs testing the specimens, they limit the impact of false-positive results and avoid accusations of tampering. When supervisors are well-trained and workers are informed, the DFWP operates in an even-handed way despite the obvious difficulties of confronting workers over dangerous and possibly illegal behavior that they are usually trying to cover up.

Beyond fairness in procedure, however, is the issue of punishment. Heavy alcohol or drug use is an affliction that needs treatment and care. The immediate loss of a job, its income and its health benefits will only compound an individual’s problem. Thus, while impaired workers must be removed from work until they address and resolve their problem, first offenders, especially, should not be banished indefinitely. Rather, they should be directed to services that can help them overcome their problems and be afforded the opportunity to return to work when they do (and can prove it).

One effective rehabilitation resource for Laborers is a Member Assistance Program (MAP). A Laborer’s MAP is a union-sponsored program designed to help resolve any members’ problems that can negatively impact job performance. Personal issues, health concerns, substance abuse and problems with co-workers can all contribute to poor job performance, and the MAP addresses all of these issues in a cost effective manner. MAPs provide free, confidential, voluntary services to members and their families alike.

MAPs also benefit employers by reducing absenteeism, lowering accident rates, containing workers’ compensation costs, limiting time spent managing poor performers, increasing quality and productivity in members’ job performance and improving employee morale.