Going cold turkey on drug abuse
Drug abuse among employees puts them and their peers at risk of workplace accidents. SHEQ Management investigates how companies can identify, prevent and reduce substance abuse in the workplace
The World Drug Report 2016 by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) estimated that in 2014, around 207 400 people between the age of 15 and 64 died worldwide, due to drug abuse. It also estimates that between 11 and 25 percent of the South African population use drugs.
According to Africa Check, there is no regular representative survey on substance abuse in South Africa. Most available statistics are referencing figures from the South African Community Epidemiology of Drug Use (SACENDU), which collects its data from government-funded and private rehabilitation centres.
SACENDU currently collects information from 70 percent of the treatment centres in the country. A report from 2015 gathered information from 10 936 patients and found that the biggest proportion, around 32 percent, were at the centre for cannabis abuse.
Many drugs, including cannabis, are used for recreational purposes and to enhance cognitive functions, such as staying awake. However, these drugs also often inhibit cognitive functions and impair judgement. This puts the employee, peers and the company at risk.
Employees in high-stress industries are especially vulnerable to substance abuse as they turn to narcotics to cope. Companies need to know the warning signs of drug abuse and the actions they can take to prevent it.
Mike Crossland, product manager at safety equipment supplier PSA Africa, shares a few of the tell-tale
signs indicating that employees might be under the influence of narcotics. Some of the most obvious signs
are poor performance, absenteeism and a lack of
“Companies should also look for signs of agitation, aggressiveness, bloodshot eyes, shakes, tremors, lack of concern for appearance or personal hygiene, financial problems or an unusual need for money as a potential indication of drug abuse,” he explains.
Reduce or prevent drug use
Whether or not an employer suspects drug abuse, it is best to take a proactive approach. Employers can start by educating employees, reviewing their performance and undertaking routine drug testing.
The latter is an effective way of preventing or reducing drug abuse, as employees are forced to abstain from using narcotics in order to pass the tests. Crossland explains that there are various ways to test for narcotics, which include urine, saliva, hair and blood testing.
“In the workplace, urine and saliva testing is the most common. Testing saliva is the least invasive, but more expensive. Testing of urine is the most widely used and the most reliable when testing for tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), or marijuana. The Noble Split Specimen Cup is, for example, a premium product that PSA Africa offers and is widely used across the United States for workplace testing,” he says.
Spontaneous testing is best
Ideally, drug tests should be carried out every six months or during the employees’ yearly medical examination. However, when drug testing becomes too predictable, it could make it easy for employees to clear their system beforehand in order to pass the test.
“The best option is a random screening programme that has the element of surprise. However, the screening must still be fair and not target any specific employees or groups of employees. The best policy is to test all employees including the CEO,” Crossland notes.
Another preventative measure is to conduct drug screenings before employment is offered to an individual and a screening after an incident occurs. Crossland states: “All employees must be notified in writing, in either their employment contract or via a signed copy of the substance abuse policy, that screening or testing may take place at the discretion of the employer.”
What to do when drugs are found
If a company should find that an employee is under the influence of narcotics, the employee can be dismissed. Crossland explains: “The use of drugs at the workplace, or coming to work while under the influence of drugs, is a dismissible offence, but the company will have to make sure it follows the rules, regulations and labour laws closely.”
Employers should consider the Occupational Health and Safety Act, the Basic Conditions of Employment Act and the internal policies and regulation documents of the company. Crossland adds that many companies choose to support employees who might have a substance-abuse problem through employee assistance programmes (EAP) and counselling.
“Most companies also have EAPs, which are designed to help employees who have substance abuse issues. Addiction is a disease and employees deserve a fair chance,” he concludes.
Does the legalisation of marijuana need more thought?
In 2017 Judge Dennis Davis ruled in a full bench decision of the Western Cape High Court, that the use and cultivation of cannabis by an adult in a private home is constitutionally legal. The ruling still needs to be ratified by the Constitutional Court before any changes can be made to the law. There could, however, be unforeseen consequences that have an effect in the workplace.
This is the view of Richard Malkin, MD of Workforce Healthcare. He notes that the adequacy of company policies regarding the use of legal and illegal substances (including marijuana) in the workplace may not be robust enough.
“An employer is held personally responsible if the workplace is not safe, and employees can be prosecuted if they don’t comply with the rules. In fact, every employer has a duty to stop employees from entering the workplace, or remaining at work, if they appear to be under the influence of intoxicating liquor or drugs.
“Depending on a company’s policy, an employee who arrives at work impaired, or under the influence, and who poses a safety risk, could be fired or arrested.
“The problem is that marijuana can show up in the bloodstream for up to a week after it has been used – it could become legal at home, but not in the workplace, and then what does a company do?” queries Malkin.
He has observed that certain industries tend to turn a blind eye to substance use when it is perceived to make employees more productive. However, safety concerns are often a company’s primary reason for prohibiting marijuana in the workplace, and they are a valid basis for banning the drug.
Usage has been linked to an increase in accidents and injuries in the workplace. The short-term effects include impaired body movement, difficulty with thinking and problem-solving, memory problems, and an altered sense of time.
Testing in the workplace also poses challenges. “Companies can’t simply say that they have a zero tolerance for substance abuse. Instead, it is important to state acceptable levels in the company’s policy document. Levels also depend on the job itself and the risks associated with doing it safely. Employers can set the standard in their own workplace, irrespective of legal limits,” he suggests.
In this regard, policy is critical in getting employee consent. Before drug and alcohol tests may be performed, employees must give written consent. “We need to have a source for reference. To do this, an occupational health and safety policy must be in place, which is set out in the employment contract. The employee’s signature on his employment contract should include consent for drug testing,” says Malkin, who advises that companies make use of experts to help formulate their company policy and “avoid the minefield of complications around substance abuse in the workplace”.
“Another issue that can have an unintended consequence is that if a person consumes cannabis at home and then drives a vehicle while under the influence, they cannot be successfully prosecuted, as there is no current legislation that defines an acceptable level of cannabis in the body while driving.
“Legislation needs to be amended to define the acceptable level of cannabis in the body in order to be allowed to drive – just like alcohol, which is clearly defined. Until legislation is amended, South Africans face the risk of being exposed to drivers under the influence of cannabis with no apparent consequence to the perpetrator,” Malkin concludes.
Alco-Safe assists in combating drunk driving
Alcohol and drug testing provider, Alco-Safe, will supply the South Africa Police Service (SAPS) with Alcoblow Rapid Test breathalysers. The compact, hand-held breathalyser was selected for its speed and ease of use. The individual simply blows onto the inverted cone area on the device. The results will be delivered in under a second. There is no need for mouthpieces – disposable or otherwise.
Rhys Evans, director at Alco-Safe, explains that the SAPS required a fast, user-friendly device that could identify whether a professional or private driver is over the legal drinking limit.
“To accommodate the SAPS, Alco-Safe modified the device to indicate a pass or fail through coloured light indicators. A negative test, indicating acceptable sobriety, will give a green light; a person who tests over the professional drinking limit will produce an orange light; while a red light will indicate that a person is over all legal alcohol limits,” Evans says.
This will allow officers to quickly proceed through the testing process, spending less time on the actual test and more on attending to individuals who are over the legal driving limit. Individuals who test positive for drunk driving will still require a secondary blood test to confirm blood alcohol levels, which is necessary for prosecution.
“Alco-Safe is proud to be associated with the SAPS and is confident that the Alcoblow Rapid Test will make their jobs easier, and will go a long way towards combatting the ever-present problem of drunk driving in South Africa,” Evans concludes.