Substance Abuse at Work


When one talks about health and safety at the workplace, one’s mind is usually and almost instantly set on things related to wearing helmets, protection glasses, safety shoes and other safety gear. However, there are things which are just as important and which effect one’s behaviour and attitude at the workplace just as much as having to deal with dangerous health risks at work.

Drug and alcohol abuse

Drug and alcohol abuse is a widespread problem  – it is a reality that the whole world is experiencing. As well as creating problems for the individual who is abusing of this substance, this abuse has other ripple effects on the enterprise where the person is employed and also on his colleagues, with whom at least eight hours a day is spent.

As a result of drug or alcohol misuse, the employee will experience reduced efficiency because he or she will not be giving his 100 per cent and this may result in the increased possibility of an accident taking place at the workplace. The employee will start missing work for no apparent reason, either because he is too drunk to get up in the morning, or because the effect of the alcohol or drug on the brain will make the person forget. Drug and alcohol misuse will also mar the relationship between colleagues – something that is extremely important to create a healthy working environment, in which everyone can feel secure and at ease.

Sedqa, Malta’s national agency against drug and alcohol abuse began running a programme entitled SAFE: Substance Abuse Free Employees. This programme has proved to be increasingly popular among employers and employees who are facing these problems at work. The SAFE programme usually consists of four phases: the first is the setting up of a nomadic display in accessible areas within a workplace where information on drug and alcohol related problems are highlighted. The exhibition would also include preventive messages, as well as Sedqa’s 24-hour helpline number – 151. This is the awareness phase.

The second phase involves a series of training sessions for management, frontline supervisors and foremen – the people who are in direct and constant contact with the employees. This phase is divided into four sessions: one is on alcohol and its effects; another is on drugs and their effects; session three deals with stress management, which is sometimes the cause of such misuse; and session four deals with ways to approach the employee experiencing such a problem.

The third phase of the programme is a series of informative meetings with employees in which alcohol and drugs and their effects are explained in detail. The fourth and final stage is a consultative meeting with the company directors to discuss and review the company’s drug and alcohol policy.

The programme does not always take the same amount of time. As was illustrated earlier, the programme is designed according to the specific requirements of the company.

How can one define addiction?

In layman’s language, addiction is when one becomes dependent on something so much that she or he cannot do without it. People can be addicted to many things, ranging from lotto and gambling, to drugs, alcohol and tobacco. Addiction is persistent and progressive, developing over time through recognised stages. Substance misuse, if untreated could become fatal Sedqa offers help.

Drug and alcohol addiction is a chemical dependency on something, which, you think, can make you, feel better, but which, on the other hand, triggers off a time bomb inside you. Once addicted, a person would need help to kick the habit. Sedqa offers such help.

How can we recognise employees with these problems?

Supervisors and managers should learn how to detect that one of their employees has drug or alcohol dependence. Apart from feeling duty bound because he or she is a colleague, they must also feel responsible in order to protect the other employees who work with this person.

While symptoms vary according to the person involved, there are some warning signs, which cannot be put aside. These include poor attendance and job performance, extreme mood and personality swings, suspicious behaviour and possession of drug-related materials such as syringes, razor blades, cigarette rolling papers and so on.

Other symptoms include deteriorating co-worker relationships, increased absenteeism, rising rates of incidents, change in employees’ work patterns, arriving late for work and slurred speech.

Since people started going out on Wednesdays apart from on the weekend, being absent from work on Thursdays and Mondays is a symptom of a problem. Blood shot eyes, long sleeves, needle marks, dilated pupils, delayed reactions, continuous nasal infection, chills, impaired co-ordination and increased perspiration are all other symptoms which can be observed.

What happens if I ignore the problem?

One can find people at the workplace who know that their colleague has an addiction and decide to do nothing about it. These are known as enablers because they would be helping the addict to continue convincing himself or herself that there is no problem. Moreover, they would be helping the person to abdicate from assuming the responsibilities of his mistakes. These co-workers may decide to cover up for their friend by substituting for missed work, and excusing low job performance, absenteeism or strange behaviour.

Drawing up a company policy

The drawing up a comprehensive drug and alcohol policy covering the whole workforce may have significant benefits for the employees and the employers. The management can deal more effectively with substance misuse if there are clearly set out procedures on how to tackle these problems at the workplace. The benefits are numerous: if the employee received the required assistance, the company is going to retain an experienced worker rather than firing him and re-training another person.

This policy must be drawn up in collaboration with the expert advice given by the sedqa prevention centre. The investment is minimal, while the positive effects are great.

Interesting figures

A past study conducted by Dr Mark Gauci and Dr Noel Vella entitled Drugs and Alcohol at the Workplace worked on a sample of 457 managers shed light on the drug and alcohol misuse problem at work.

According to the study, 8.5 per cent of respondents claimed they had taken drugs in the past while one per cent said they were currently using drugs. Five per cent of respondents said they knew colleagues who were using drugs. On alcohol, the study revealed that 21.4 per cent knew of workers who drank alcohol while at work and 42.7 per cent knew workers who drank alcohol heavily after work.

Recent figures from the United Kingdom show that a quarter of those applying for help at clinics and drug centres are gainfully occupied. In Malta, half of these people are employed. In the UK, 40 per cent of the workforce who are below 40 years old have experimented with drugs. This figure increases by five per cent in the 16 to 29 age bracket. Also in the UK, between 20 and 25 per cent of industrial accidents are related to alcohol misuse. 84 per cent said they did not have awareness programmes, something that in Malta is non-existent thanks to the SAFE programme offered by Sedqa.

Drug and alcohol misuse does not grow out of trees and does not happen overnight. It is something, which recurs and often begins from a tender age. A study conducted by sedqa in 1999 among 4000+ schoolchildren aged between 15 and 16 gave worrying results.

A staggering 94 per cent of students said they consumed alcohol on one occasion or more than one occasion in their life. 36 per cent said they drank alcohol at least 40 times while 40 per cent drank alcohol between 5 and 35 times.

Although 94 per cent said they consumed alcohol, only 52.5 per cent said they never got drunk and 34 per cent said they got drunk less than six times. 8.3 per cent reported drinking alcohol on a daily basis while 24 per cent said they did not drink alcohol during the last month. This study revealed that the most popular drinking venue was at home, followed by discotheques, bars and pubs.

On the use of drugs, 92 per cent said they had never tried taking drugs while 16.2 per cent said they used inhalants, with one per cent saying they sniffed more than 40 times. 7.2 per cent said they used marijuana while 2.3 per cent said they had consumed ecstasy.

When compared to the average results obtained by the other 29 countries that carried out this study, Malta was above average on more than one occasion. These included the drinking of alcohol in the last year (+8), the use of inhalants (+7) and the use of alcohol and pills (+4).

Minimun risks

According to the International Labour Organisation, the minimum risk people are facing when dealing with alcohol should be according to these guidelines:

An adult male weighing 70kg should not have more than 21 units of alcohol spread out over five days. The remaining two days should be alcohol-free. An adult woman weighing 55kg should not have more than 14 units of alcohol spread out over five days with the remaining two days being alcohol-free.

One must keep in mind that, although this data is taken from international source, from a health and safety perspective, especially in the workplace, total abstention is highly solicited. One must also consider that addiction has highly subjective elements, which can result in what is minimum risk for some and major risks for others.

One small bottle of beer, two-thirds of a glass of wine and one tot of whiskey, brandy or any other liquor are all considered to be equal to one unit. One bottle of wine is equal to eight units.Don’t forget, the greatest problem is when you don’t know you have a problem.

For more information, kindly direct your request to [email protected]



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