The American Association of Occupational Health Nurses (AAOHN) and the American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine (ACOEM) are collaborating on a study of workplace health and safety issues associated with worker impairment from the use of marijuana and other drugs. 

The groups hope to provide education and recommendations aimed at raising awareness and 
better understanding of worker impairment.

According to the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence Inc. (NCADD), drug abuse costs employers $81 billion annually. Some 70 percent of the estimated 14.8 million Americans who use illegal drugs are employed, and workers who report having three or more jobs in the previous five years are about twice as likely to be current or past year users of illegal drugs as those who have had two or fewer jobs. 

View the photo gallery Drug Abuse in the Workplace here.

Citing changing societal attitudes toward marijuana, including its increasing use for medicinal purposes and new state-decriminalization laws, ACOEM and AAOHN leaders said the occupational health profession can play an important role in helping the U.S. workplace prepare for the potential impacts of these trends.

“Twenty states and the District of Columbia have enacted laws to legalize medical marijuana and two states have approved its recreational use by adults,” said AAOHN President Pam Carter, RN. “With growing advocacy, other states seem ready to follow. Mainly because of such rapid change, both of our associations believe it is time to address workplace health and safety concerns when workers have impaired functioning from this and other drugs.”   

Drug use, abuse or addiction among employees and their family members can cause expensive problems for business and industry, ranging from lost productivity, absenteeism, injuries, fatalities, theft and low employee morale, to an increase in health care, legal liabilities and workers' compensation costs.

In addition, according to NCADD, drug abuse can cause problems at work including:

  • After-effects of substance use (withdrawal) affecting job performance.
  • Preoccupation with obtaining and using substances while at work, interfering with attention and concentration.
  • Illegal activities at work including selling illegal drugs to other employees.
  • Psychological or stress-related effects due to drug use by a family member, friend or co-worker that affects another person's job performance.

“Marijuana is being viewed as a relatively harmless substance, but this may be a misconception by those who may be unaware of workplace safety issues that can arise when workers are under the influence of marijuana or other drugs,” said ACOEM President Ron Loeppke, MD. “To compound the issue, there is a dearth of scientific studies to support the nature of current marijuana products and their effect on workers.”  

AAOHN and ACOEM will form a collaborative task force over the next several months to examine current science related to marijuana use and determine evidence-based education and recommendations that can be offered to support occupational and environmental professionals who consult with employers regarding workplace health policies.

Indications of Possible Workplace Drug Problems

According to NCADD, the following job performance and workplace behaviors may be signs that indicate possible workplace drug problems:

  • Job performance.
  • Inconsistent work quality.
  • Poor concentration and lack of focus.
  • Lowered productivity or erratic work patterns.
  • Increased absenteeism or on the job “presenteeism.”
  • Unexplained disappearances from the job site.
  • Carelessness, mistakes or errors in judgment.
  • Needless risk taking.
  • Disregard for safety for self and others which can translate to on-the-job and off-the-job accidents.
  • Extended lunch periods and early departures.
  • Workplace behavior.
  • Frequent financial problems.
  • Avoidance of friends and colleagues.
  • Blaming others for own problems and shortcomings.
  • Complaints about problems at home.
  • Deterioration in personal appearance or personal hygiene.
  • Complaints, excuses and time off for vaguely defined illnesses or family problems.

Work can be an important place to address drug abuse issues and by establishing or promoting programs such as an EAP and a drug-free workplace program (DFWP), employers can help employees and their families through referrals to community resources and services.  Many individuals and families face a host of difficulties closely associated with drug use, and they bring these problems into the workplace, directly or indirectly. By supporting EAP and treatment, employers dramatically can assist in reducing the negative impact of drug use on the workplace, according to NCADD. 

Employers with successful EAPs and DFWPs report improvements in morale and productivity and decreases in absenteeism, accidents, downtime, turnover and theft.

Employers with longstanding programs also report better health status among employees and family members and decreased use of medical benefits by these same groups.