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Alcohol and the Workplace

Alcohol and the Workplace

Posted by Dr. David J. Silver, B.S., M.S. Ph.D., CIH on May 23rd 2019

Alcohol-use disorder can occur in just about any workplace, especially those that are around alcohol like bartenders, jobs involving social networking, painful jobs, and those who work long hours. The likely outcome from alcohol use is impaired judgment and poor health outcomes, lost sick days, and injuries.

Personal Experience

When I was a college student, I worked for one of the big automakers in Detroit. The work was monotonous and the pay was high. Upon observation, I noticed empty whiskey and vodka bottles strewn in between various metal working machines. One day, during one of the two 15-minute breaks, workers were lined up outside the gate to leave. This was odd behavior for such a short break. I joined them to see a group of about ten auto workers enter a bar, not more than 200 feet from the entrance. A long empty bar with 10 stools and a shot glass in front of each one. They lined up single file, sat down, swigged down a shot or two, and then re-entered the building through the gate. I was surprised that anyone could get away with this and especially under the watching eyes of the supervisors. They repeated this action every day. That was in the 1970s.

Employer Responsibility

Currently, courts have decided in favor of the employee for current or recovering alcoholics and may be entitled to protection under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). See Salley v. Circuit City Stores, 160 F.3d 977 (3d Cir. 1998); Burch v. Coca-Cola Co., 119 F.3d 305 (5th Cir. 1997). The courts recognize that employers require attendance and proper behavior at the workplace; however, the employee may need rehabilitation.

Workplace Hazards

Some workplaces are more hazardous than others. Some hazardous workplace situations require focus and being free from distraction. Anybody involved in confined space work knows that entrants require constant communication with the attendant to prevent mishaps and rescue entrants. Consider workers at the CDC working with pathogens – a missed detail may result in contamination to the laboratory, or worse yet, contamination to the outside world. Impairment by illegal drugs, prescriptions, too much caffeine, alcohol, and marijuana, could endanger a worker and others.

Legal Prescriptions, Alcohol, and Marijuana

The concept that legal prescriptions, alcohol, and marijuana used in a way that will interfere with work is okay because it is legal, is misunderstood. If a legal prescription causes an unwanted effect for the task(s), the worker should be reassigned until they are free from the effects. Both marijuana and alcohol can stay resident in a person’s body until the effects wear off. Drinking or smoking on a Sunday may become a big Monday issue. For prevention, education of the employees and staff are advised. Have policies and training for new workers and make it part of staff safety meetings.

Identifying workplace impairment

As an employer, it is imperative that you know if a worker is impaired or has a problem. Look for these signs:

  • Stumbling, lack of coordination
  • General malaise, frequent headaches (not to be confused with occupational exposure that may have to be investigated)
  • Nauseous, pale
  • Bloodshot, glossy eyes, slow pupil response
  • Slurred speech
  • Inability to complete tasks, lack of focus
  • These warning signs should not be taken lightly and must be handled immediately. Prevention and administration policies will allow for assessment due to impairment and alcohol testing. Alcohol testing devices in the workplace will allow the employer to determine if alcohol is the problem or something else. These devices must be calibrated prior to use so that if need be, the data can hold up in court. Calibration ensures the accuracy of the device.

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