The risks of alcohol and drug abuse in the solid waste industry

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The risks of alcohol and drug abuse in the solid waste industry

If you have been following these articles over the years, you know that most of the time, we talk about practicality and efficiency and safety, and occasionally some new technology, but this edition of the landfill manager’s notebook is a serious one. How will you as a manager or someone on your crew respond when somebody shows up to work drunk, stoned, or seriously hungover?

This is a very common—and challenging—problem. Of the 20 million adults classified as having problems with substance dependence or abuse in 2007, approximately 12 million (60%) were employed full-time, according to the US Department of Health and Human Services. Up to 40% of industrial fatalities and 47% of industrial injuries can be linked to alcohol use and alcoholism.

Substance abuse can lead to high absenteeism, lower job productivity and performance, and greater healthcare expenses for injuries and illnesses. Safety risks related to substance abuse can also increase workers’ compensation and disability claims.

According to the CDC, drug overdoses killed more than 70,000 Americans in 2017. More people die from drug overdoses than from HIV, vehicle wrecks, or gun violence.

I know firsthand what a major issue this is because over the years I have talked about this topic many times while conducting onsite safety training at all types of waste facilities.

When you start talking about how to respond when a worker shows up drunk or stoned, the room gets very, very quiet. People look at the floor, they look at the table, they look off into space, but they don’t look at you and they don’t look at each other because each person is probably remembering a very similar incident. When someone shows up for work under the influence, it puts everyone else in a very difficult position. What do you do? Do you pull them aside and quietly tell them they are not able to work, or that they need to go home? No! Bad idea. You can’t put them in a vehicle and have them drive. They could get into a wreck or hurt someone else. Do you tell your manager, and then feel like a snitch? And you know this person—they have two kids, and if they lose this job it will be devastating to their family.

Or do you just hope that they can sort of skate by and maybe if you’re lucky, nothing will happen? No, bad idea.

No matter how difficult it is, you need to address the issue head-on. You need to contact your supervisor and explain what is going on, what you saw, what you heard, what you smell. It’s like what TSA signs say in airports: if you see something, say something. If you don’t, and something happens, you are complicit.

You might feel bad to have to tell your supervisor that one of your coworkers is under the influence but think about how you would feel if you don’t and that person gets on a truck and kills someone.

Do you want to live with that?
You need to do the right thing. If in your mind you need to say, “Hey, this isn’t my fault, I didn’t cause this—they’re the ones that came to work impaired,” or “Hey, I’m forced to do my job, it’s not my fault, I just have to do my job, and part of that job is to tell my supervisor when there is something unsafe in our workplace.”

In many cases, you are actually helping that person by reporting them. They have a problem, and it’s not just affecting their work life; it’s probably affecting every part of their life. By confronting them, there is a chance that they can get the help they need. Different people look at this and justify it different ways, but the bottom line is that you are required to do something if you see a coworker who is not capable of safely going out and doing their job.

Another option is to anonymously tell your supervisor. If you run a waste facility, you should have a system for employees to report anonymously, so they feel comfortable taking action.

Often, the person who is impaired or even other coworkers will try to make you feel bad for doing the right thing, but that is their problem. You are not putting that person in a bad place—they are putting you in a bad place, and you are simply responding in the right way.

This very important topic should be addressed regularly at safety meetings. Everyone on your team needs to know that they will be supported and protected by management if they find themselves in a situation where they have to report a coworker for coming to work under the influence.

If you are the manager of a waste facility, it is your job to explain your organization’s policies and communicate the importance of doing the right thing.

If your organization doesn’t have current policies in place regarding substance abuse, you should work to create them. It is important to be aware of both federal and state laws. For example, 33 states, as well as the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and Guam, have legalized medical marijuana use, and ten states have made it legal for recreational use. The changing landscape requires companies to redefine their policies around drug testing and working under the influence. However, because marijuana is still classified as a Schedule 1 drug by the U.S. Federal government, employers have the authority to implement strict policies around marijuana use among employees who work in “safety-sensitive” jobs. You should work closely with your human resources and legal departments to ensure that any policies are in alignment with your state’s laws, as well as federal guidelines.

Here is a list of solutions for preventing substance abuse at your facility:

  • Work with management, human resources, and legal to create and implement policies on substance abuse in the workplace.
  • Post policies that make it clear that the use of alcohol or drugs is never permitted in the workplace.
  • Include information about the health risks of alcohol and drugs during safety meetings.
  • Respect the privacy of employees if they are in drug or alcohol recovery.

This is the real deal. Chances are pretty high that you and every one of your workers will at some point in their career be confronted with this type of scenario. It is imperative that you do your job as a manager to establish the specific procedures of how workers are supposed to respond when this happens and how management will respond in turn. 

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