Gumming up the works

Mechanics under the influence may pose greater threat than afflicted truck driversTalk about a tossing in a monkey wrench. Even as fleets strive to make highways safer by addressing the problem of alcohol- and drug-impaired truck drivers, another -- and perhaps bigger -- threat is looming.This "new" safety and liability issue extends to any road a truck travels. But it arises in, of all places, the

Mechanics under the influence may pose greater threat than afflicted truck drivers

Talk about a tossing in a monkey wrench. Even as fleets strive to make highways safer by addressing the problem of alcohol- and drug-impaired truck drivers, another -- and perhaps bigger -- threat is looming.

This "new" safety and liability issue extends to any road a truck travels. But it arises in, of all places, the maintenance shop.

According to 1991-93 data contained in the latest National Household Survey on Drug Abuse (NHSDA) released by the U.S. Dept. of Health & Human Services, vehicle-maintenance personnel rank in the top ten occupations plagued by excessive alcohol and drug use.

The survey reports that 13% of mechanics and technicians had used "illicit" drugs within the last month. And 16% of the surveyed workers had become "seriously drunk" (defined as downing five or more drinks).

What's more, it should be noted the surveys hows truck drivers did not fall into the category of "heaviest users" of alcohol and drugs. However, that doesn't necessarily mean all the time, money, effort, and aggravation fleets have incurred to test, treat, or terminate drivers suffering from substance abuse has been for naught. Rather, it could be safely assumed that all those good works have in fact forced drivers to shape up or ship out.

Unfortunately, those surveyed were not asked if they were ever under the influence while at work. But lacking such data doesn't preclude reaching some common-sense conclusions.

Hangovers --which are really indications of overdosing on alcohol or drugs -- can be debilitating enough to keep even the hardiest soul from making it into work. Even if he or she makes it in, a worker with a hangover is simply not as fit for duty as one who had one, two, or no drinks beforehand.

If enough drugs or alcohol are consumed before starting work-- hours or minutes before -- the employee won't be nursing a hangover. Instead, they may still be high as the proverbial kite. I remember a big imbiber being asked about his hangover. "I don't have a hangover," came his reply. "I've got a leftover."

Whether they have a hangover or a leftover, everyone would be better off if impaired workers stayed home-- or were sent there -- out of harm's way.

The NHSDA data has apparently not yet caught the eye of the general media or watchdog safety groups. But we can already see the headlines and news broadcasts screaming about "Killer Mechanics."

Why not? It only makes sense that people in and out of trucking would be alarmed to hear commercial vehicles might crash because mechanics charged with keeping trucks road-worthy were too hopped up or hungover to do their job correctly.

Historically, facing up to a problem with alcohol and drugs has been a matter of personal responsibility. It still is. But now, employers are increasingly being held accountable as well.

Don't overreact, but don't wait to react. Act by adapting those aspects of existing drug and alcohol programs for drivers to mechanics and other employees.

Skip invasive screening for now, and focus on setting a clear, legal corporate policy that spells out exactly how drug and alcohol problems will be dealt with on your watch. Consider looking into establishing or expanding an Employee Assistance Program (EAP). Whether administered in-house or contracted outside, a good EAP will give workers an avenue to lick alcohol or drugs -- even long before they're called on the carpet.

Not only is it ethical and moral to do, widening the scope of alcohol and drug policies to cover the entire workplace is fiscally prudent.

Any worker who's not physically and mentally up to par can cost a business plenty. Study after study has demonstrated that workers saddled with active alcoholism or drug addiction put a dent in productivity and push up medical costs -- even if the closest they get to handling machinery is a pencil sharpener.

Keep your head out of the sand and an eye on the role alcohol and drugs play at work. The good you do for your workers, the countless persons their lives intersect, and your company will also be good for you.

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