The Truth about Alcohol Abuse and Workplace Injuries

When researching the effects of alcohol on workplace injuries, you’ll likely stumble across a statistic attributing 38 to 50 percent of all workplace injuries to alcohol or drug abuse. If that sounds shockingly high to you, you’re probably right.

The statistic supposedly comes from a report by the NCCI, the National Council on Compensation Insurance. But the NCCI denies ever putting that number out. A 2011 article in Business Insurance quoted several experts as saying that statistic sounds high to them. In fact, no central source for that kind of data exists.

The Business Insurance article reported that a spokeswoman for the California State Compensation Insurance Fund said that less than 1 percent of its claimants were intoxicated at the time of their injury. However, workers’ compensation insurers depend on employers to report whether an employee was intoxicated at the time of an accident, and many employers either do not test for alcohol and drug use, or do not become aware of the injury until after the fact.

So how bad is the alcohol abuse problem, and should employers be concerned? According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), nearly 14 million Americans (1 in every 13 adults) abuse alcohol or are alcoholics. Several million more adults engage in risky drinking patterns that could lead to alcohol problems. A study published in Alcoholism Clinical and Experimental Research (2007) found that 22 percent of patients admitted to a hospital emergency room had elevated blood alcohol levels. Alcohol not only contributes to accidents, it can lead to medical complications for the patient.

Some research indicates that the aftereffects of drinking could create nearly as many problems as being intoxicated at work. A worker who shows up to work hung over can suffer from drowsiness, inattention, poor judgment and delayed reflexes—all of which can increase the potential for accident.

The Role of a Supervisor

Supervisors play an important role in preventing alcohol use or abuse from leading to a workplace accident. It’s not the supervisor’s place to diagnose an alcohol problem, but to monitor and review employees’ performance, attendance and behavior while at work. If any of these indicate possible drug or alcohol abuse, the supervisor should take the next steps to deal with the problem.

Steps include:

•   Document the problem. Whether you’ve noticed a drop in productivity, increased absenteeism or problem behaviors, note the specifics in the employee’s personnel file.

•   Make a referral to an employee assistance program, if your organization offers one. An employee assistance program can make a confidential diagnosis and referrals to the appropriate resources.

•   Take appropriate disciplinary action. The most effective way to get an alcoholic to deal with the problem is to make the alcoholic aware that his or her job is on the line and that he or she must get help and improve performance and conduct, or face serious consequences, including the possibility of losing the job.

•   Make sure to follow any established company guidelines to avoid accusations of harassment, discrimination or invasion of privacy.

•   Test only with cause. Unless your organization has a published policy of conducting random drug tests, requiring an employee to take a test for suspected drug or alcohol abuse can backfire. An on-the-job accident can create cause for testing…just be sure your employee handbook and employment policies reserve the company’s right to test for alcohol and drug use after a workplace accident.

•   Workers’ compensation excludes coverage for accidents involving drug or alcohol abuse, so hospitals and physicians are sometimes reluctant to test people with occupational injuries. Try to get a test whenever an employee goes to the hospital for a work-related injury.

•   Use testing consistently. Testing only certain classes of employees, such as hourly workers or minority workers, can lead to discrimination claims.

•   Follow up. When an employee has an accident involving drug or alcohol use, follow up to make sure he or she has completed the rehabilitation program recommended by a licensed mental health professional. Follow-up and adhering to disciplinary procedures can help you avoid accidents and create a safer, more productive workplace.


For more information on fostering a safer workplace, please contact us.