Substance abuse concerns us as a society and as a company. While your company has made its policies on this subject clear, this article is not really about policies. It's about what substance abuse does to individuals and how, in particular, that affects safety.
Everybody knows that many drugs are illegal, that drinking too much creates problems on the job and off, and that your company has a strict policy prohibiting the use of drugs and alcohol on the job. But one of the problems with drugs and alcohol is that they’re sneaky. People take them to feel better, and in a way, they work. They fuzz things over so that the people who have problems often don’t recognize that they have a problem. Or they blame other people, their jobs, or even the world in general for personal problems and even for the problems that result from drug or alcohol abuse.
The purpose of this article is to explain substance abuse and its effects on safety. If, however, you hear anything that hits close to home or sounds like someone you know, the hope is that this will help provide some ideas on what to do about it.
Drugs and alcohol are different in many ways, but they have one common hazard: Using them as an escape from real life creates more real-life problems than you started with.
Many people believe they use alcohol or drugs to relax and make them feel better about themselves. That may be, but the problems are still there when you stop being drunk or high. And if you never come down, the problems mount up faster than you could have believed possible.
To begin with, alcohol and drugs are addictive. There's some debate on whether every drug is physically addictive. But it almost doesn't matter because addiction means that something else is in control — not you.
Anyone has an addictive problem if he or she spends much time:
- Planning to get high or drunk
- Getting money to buy drugs or alcohol
- Making arrangements to buy drugs and worrying about how to do it without getting caught
If you add in the regular, if not constant, desire for alcohol or a drug, that’s proof.
Let's look specifically at alcohol first, because it's the most common and most commonly abused substance.
Alcohol is legal and it’s relatively cheap. There’s nothing wrong with an occasional social drink. Unfortunately, most people with a drinking problem don’t recognize when they cross the line, or rationalize that they’re just drinking beer or wine. But it’s not what you drink or even the amount you drink that makes the difference – it’s what happens when you drink and the effect it has on your life and the lives around you.
Alcohol has no place on the job because it slows down your physical and mental reflexes. The accident potential is tremendous, no matter what you’re working with or on. And, of course, the person who’s been drinking is not the only one at risk: everyone else in the vicinity is, too.
None of us can afford to have a person on the job who has been drinking. If you know of someone with a problem, or you’ve seen mistakes that appear to be a result of a drinking problem, don’t ignore it. Talk to the person. If they deny a problem or you see the problem continuing, talk to your supervisor.
There are a number of signs that an individual has an alcohol problem: missing work due to drinking, drinking alone, forgetting what happened after you’ve been drinking, and more. For anyone with a drinking problem, the first and most important step to overcoming it is to admit there’s a problem. One of the best places to start working on it is with Alcoholics Anonymous. AA groups are everywhere, and they’re listed in the phone book.
Alcohol is, of course, not the only substance that can cause problems. On the illegal drug list, probably the worst problems come from cocaine use, especially cocaine in the form of crack.
People like cocaine because it makes them feel terrific. Unfortunately, that sense of superconfidence makes for terrible judgment and mistakes. On the job, coke is a disaster. People think that they don’t need safety protection, or need to follow the rules.
Cocaine is also addictive, whether the addiction is physical or mental. The more you do, the more you want — and the less you want anything else. This creates another problem because cocaine is expensive. Even crack, which is cheap, ends up being expensive because people do so much of it. Very few people have enough money to pay their regular bills and pay for a cocaine habit, too. So they borrow, sell things and steal, which creates more problems.
Cocaine doesn't do much for your health, either. It becomes more important than food or sleep, which wears down your body and lowers your resistance to illness. It also breaks down nasal membranes. And, as you've probably read in the newspapers, it sometimes brings on fatal heart attacks.
You’ve all heard about rich and famous people — athletes, movie stars, etc. — who have been brought down by coke. If they can’t handle or pay for it, how could a regular person?
Some people often claim that marijuana is a harmless, if illegal, drug. But it is illegal, and it’s not harmless. It's worse for your lungs than cigarettes and it slows you down physically and mentally. It is another on-the-job accident waiting to happen.
There's more. Marijuana makes you forgetful and makes you lose track of time. So, on the job, that could translate into forgetting whether you did or didn’t follow particular procedures, forgetting what you just read on an MSDS, forgetting to check your air supply on a respirator. Marijuana also throws off your space and distance judgment, which can really upset things like material handling or driving jobs.
Added to all of these effects, marijuana makes you think nothing is very important. So you don’t care if you forget to use the protective equipment and practices you need to keep yourself and others safe.
Amphetamines and sedatives
Another common but illegal drug is amphetamines, also known as speed, or uppers. People take them to stay awake for long drives or projects. They do keep you up, but they also make you pretty manic so that you run around in a frenzy, make careless mistakes, and push yourself beyond what you can handle. You can see all the accidents waiting to happen there. In addition, they're addictive. And, the more you take, the more you need to get the same effect.
The other side of this coin is sedatives, or downers. Many of these are not illegal; they're prescription drugs that can be very useful when taken under a doctor’s supervision for depression, sleeplessness, stress and serious pain. However, even if you have a prescription, tranquilizers, barbiturates, and pain-killers — much less sleeping pills — have no place at work. They slow down your physical and mental reflexes, which is their job. But when they do their job, you are in no condition to do yours.
Sedatives are also addictive. If you can't get along without them, talk to your doctor.
Heroin is an illegal, addictive drug. It’s addictive even if you don’t use it constantly, and it’s addictive even if you don’t use needles. If you’ve ever seen a heroin addict, you know that they could never perform safely on the job. They do the drug so they can “nod out,” and that's a good term for it. Heroin takes over life and puts addicts into a drug daze, broken only when they come down and have to have more. That's what addiction is all about.
People with a heroin problem don’t take care of themselves; their health goes downhill fast. They also usually end up stealing to get the money to pay for drugs.
The quality of heroin is apparently so uneven that addicts don’t know exactly what they’re getting and often die from overdoses. There’s also a serious risk of getting hepatitis or AIDS from dirty needles. A large percentage of AIDS cases are people who use needles for drugs — or people who got it from needle users. Heroin users aren’t found that often on the job because they’re in no condition to even get in here. But even experimentation with heroin is too high a risk to take.
Protection against hazards
The best way to protect against developing a drug problem is to avoid drugs. Period.
Alcohol is trickier because it’s legal and can be OK if used in moderation and in situations where you don't have to drive, use tools or otherwise be at your most alert.
Anyone who has a tendency to abuse alcohol or drugs should make a real effort to face up to the problem because it is a problem and it will get worse, not go away.
People whose personal problems or insecurities send them to alcohol or drugs have other options.
You can talk out your problems with friends, family members or professional counselors.
You can exercise to work off your frustrations.
You can look for and practice things you do well to build confidence.
You can practice deep breathing exercises, listen to music and take other steps to help you relax.
There are a lot of sources of help specifically for drug and alcohol problems.
There are support groups for people who share problems. AA is the biggest and best known, but there are similar support groups for drug users. They're found in the phone book white pages under "Alcohol," "Cocaine," or "Drugs." If you don't find what you need, try the INFO LINE or HELP LINE number. Or check the yellow pages under headings like "Human Services," "Health Organizations," "Social Services Organizations" or "Mental Health Organizations."
The point is to get help or help yourself. Substance abuse problems are serious problems that get more serious the longer they're ignored. Help yourself. Or, be a real friend and help someone else to get help.
As was stated at the beginning, this article is not meant to accuse anyone of having a substance-abuse problem. But we do want you to understand why your company is concerned about substance abuse. It is, among other things, a real safety issue.
Everything we’ve discussed today is bad news. The good news is that no one has to stay trapped in a substance-abuse cycle. There is help available for anyone who admits the problem.
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