It's Alcohol That Should Be Tested

Most people don't realize that alcohol is a drug.

October 3, 2003

The drug of choice for the majority of American workers isn’t marijuana, cocaine or amphetamines, all of which must be obtained illegally. The winner is alcohol, which can, of course, be purchased legally at a large number of stores, bars and restaurants in virtually every community in America.

    The National Household Survey on Drug Abuse, released by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services last year, reports that 7.8 percent of the full-time workers queried said they had used illicit drugs during the previous month. A slightly higher 8.1 percent reported heavy alcohol use. Illicit drug use was defined as any use in the previous 30 days. Heavy alcohol use was defined as five or more drinks on the same occasion on at least five different days in a month’s time.

    Some employers are required by federal law to conduct random and post-accident alcohol tests on safety-sensitive workers such as nuclear power plant operators or locomotive engineers. Yet few other companies incorporate alcohol testing in even the most stringent drug-testing programs. Alcohol testing detects current use, whereas drug tests detect only past use, and it’s a rare occasion when a job applicant or cubicle dweller is given a Breathalyzer or blood-alcohol test.

    "We’ve declared a war on drugs but not on alcohol. It’s part of our culture and a great source of tax revenue, too," says Noel Ragsdale, a specialist in employment law at the University of Southern California Law School. She adds that alcohol-testing technology, whether it’s used to test breath or blood, is more labor-intensive and expensive than tests for most other drugs. Also, alcohol testing opens up companies to the same kinds of legal challenges and obfuscation used by defense attorneys in drunk-driving cases.

    Not that many companies have gone so far as to worry. Most people don’t even realize that alcohol is a drug, says Bruce Cotter, author ofWhen They Won’t Quit and an an expert on workplace addiction and recovery. "When people go drinking, they don’t say, ‘Let’s go out and do some drugs after work.’ Or ‘Let’s go to the Plaza. We’ll do some drugs before we go home.’ "

    Another obstacle is that in many cases the person responsible for implementing alcohol testing has a strong reason to avoid it, says Don Rothschild, a self-described recovering alcoholic and the head of Peak Paths, a Denver firm that provides consulting services to companies on drug and alcohol matters. "If the head man has a problem with alcohol, he always says, ‘We don’t have a problem,’ " Rothschild relates. He says that all companies should draft and enforce unambiguous policies that treat at-work alcohol and drug use identically. More important, supervisors, and not lab technicians, should be the first line of defense against substance abuse. "To have a viable drug-free workplace, they must be trained to detect the signs of employee abuse," Rothschild says. "They must confront these employees. And if they’re drinking or drugging on the job, they should be offered help." .

Workforce Management, October 2003, p. 38 -- Subscribe Now!