By Naomi Carr

Last updated: 13 May 2024 & medically reviewed by Dr. David Miles

The use of drugs and alcohol, whether within the workplace or in personal time, can have a significant impact on workplace and employee safety, productivity, and well-being. Developing and implementing policies, procedures, training, and education to ensure a drug-free workplace can help protect employers and employees.

Key takeaways:

  • Learn how to create a drug-free workplace

  • Use our toolkit for creating workplace drug policies

  • Understand your legal rights and obligations as an employer

  • Find additional resources for drug and alcohol workplace policies

Drug and Alcohol Resources for Employers

The importance of a drug-free workplace

The use of substances, both legal and illegal, can impact a person’s functioning and health, which can affect their ability to work. Using substances outside of work or being under the influence of substances in the workplace can cause physical and mental health issues, impair functioning, and cause danger to the individual and others. 

For some people, it is necessary to use prescription drugs to maintain normal functioning and physical or mental health. However, prescription drugs, as well as illicit substances, can be misused and lead to harmful effects and behaviors. People whose drug use leads to dependence, mental health issues, or impaired concentration may experience negative effects within their professional role.

Most job roles require employees to be alert and aware of others and the environment, such as those who drive, use machinery, and care for others. When drug use impacts an individual’s performance or the safety of people within the workplace, this becomes an issue for the employer as well.

Studies show that employees who use substances are more likely to take time off work, be involved in accidents in the workplace, and demonstrate reduced levels of performance. This can lead to avoidable costs for the employer, such as financial consequences, loss of clients, and physical harm.[1]

Implementing policies and procedures around drugs and alcohol in the workplace can help prevent physical, mental, and financial harm to the company, employees, and employers. This can help provide a safe workplace and a supportive environment for individuals who face substance-related issues.[2]

How to create a drug-free workplace

Creating a drug-free workplace will often include involvement from all employers and employees and the implementation of and adherence to policies, procedures, and laws.

Clear and accessible policies

Employers should create a written policy detailing the rules and regulations around drug and alcohol use in the workplace. Policies should be easily accessible to all employees, with all necessary information included. This should clearly explain:

  • Regulations and procedures and the reasons behind their implementation

  • State and federal laws that inform these regulations to ensure legal compliance

  • Disciplinary procedures that may be enacted and in which circumstances they may occur

  • How employees can seek support

  • Expectations of all employers, supervisors, and employees around compliance

Our drug and alcohol workplace policy guide can help you set up an effective policy for your work environment.

Drug testing

Drug testing rules and procedures are likely to vary significantly depending on the workplace, roles, and location. Employers should create policies around drug testing that comply with federal and state laws. This should include very clear instructions to employees about the frequency, type, and enforcement of drug testing, with nonjudgmental and consistent application within the workplace.

Education and awareness

Employers should provide training and education to all employees about substance use, to promote healthy attitudes and behaviors. This should include providing an understanding of the causes, impacts, and available treatment of various substance use disorders, dependence, and abuse, with education about the impact these issues can have on individual health and employment.

Training and expectations

Employers and supervisors should have a clear understanding of the drug-free workplace policy and rationale behind regulations, ensuring they comply with all legal requirements. They should be clear on how to implement any necessary actions relating to these procedures while ensuring a supportive and non-judgmental environment for employees.

Expectations of people in supervisory roles should include:

  • Understanding how, why, and when to take disciplinary action

  • Maintaining employee confidentiality and privacy

  • Their own and employees' legal rights

  • How to support employees experiencing drug and alcohol issues and appropriate services to which they can be referred

  • Processes around supporting individuals returning to work after drug-related treatment or medical leave 

Providing support

Employers must be clear and consistent about the laws and regulations to which their employees must adhere. However, creating a drug-free workplace should not involve strict and judgmental attitudes and behaviors around drug and alcohol use. It is important for employees to feel comfortable approaching their supervisors if and when they require support.

Implementing Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) can help create a supportive environment in which employees who experience any issues around drug and alcohol use feel safe communicating with their employer about their difficulties without fear of severe disciplinary action or judgment.

Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs)

There are various types of Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs), which involve providing a range of supportive services to employees and employers to help with issues that impact the workplace. Many organizations offer EAP services to employees and their family members to provide support with issues around finances, legal difficulties, healthcare, and substance use.[3]

EAPs can help employers develop drug-free workplace policies, which can include alcohol, illicit substances, and prescription drugs. These programs can also help employers manage substance-related issues in the workplace, provide education and training to employees, and offer legal advice, helping to ensure a safe workplace environment.

EAPs can help employers implement procedures to support employees and provide services such as counseling, specialist referrals, and aftercare. This can help prevent or reduce the impact of substance use issues on work performance, support employees in seeking treatment, and provide guidance around returning to work after absences or treatment.[4]

The International Employee Assistance Professionals Association (EAPA) provides resources and information relating to EAPs, including education and training, certification for EAP providers, and best practices. 

The drug-free workplace toolkit

The drug-free workplace toolkit can help implement each of the above components, using clear steps to guide the development of drug-free practices and objectives.

1. Forming an employee team

Depending on the size of the organization, choose some employees to ensure a fair and widespread representation of employees, including the various professional roles and ethnic or cultural backgrounds.

This team can discuss their understanding of the organization’s substance-related issues and potential goals, and how to develop policies and procedures to address these.

2. Assessing workplace needs

The purpose and details of the drug-free policy will depend on the type of organization and professional roles. For example, federal organizations or contracts will have to adhere to set requirements. 

This assessment can involve discussing the prevalence of substance use and the need for education within the organization, along with compliance with specific federal or state laws.

3. Using qualitative and quantitative approaches

Understanding and managing substance use within an organization can involve qualitative and quantitative approaches. Qualitative approaches may involve focus groups, interviews, and observations, to gather an understanding of behaviors and attitudes. Quantitative approaches can involve surveys, data, and statistics to gather specific figures on the impact of substance use.

4. Planning

This can involve deciding if an EAP will be used and which type would be appropriate for the organization, what training and education will be provided, if drug testing will be implemented, and where information and resources will be available for employees. 

5. Developing a policy

At this point, a written policy can be developed that meets state and federal laws. This should clearly outline the organization’s statement of purpose, expectations, and goals of a drug-free program. It should also cover the consequences of violations, how and where support will be provided, and the roles of individuals in implementing policy procedures.

6. Informing and preparing staff

Communicate to employees the expectations and goals outlined in the policy, where they can find necessary information, and how the policy will help to improve and maintain their safety and well-being. Ensure all are aware of their roles in implementing the policy, such as supervisors, human resources, and individual employees.

7. Providing education and training

Provide employees with appropriate education and training around substance use awareness, including the impact of substance use on health and professional performance. Additional training can involve prevention education, such as mental health, stress, pain, and nutrition management, to promote healthy behaviors.

8. Training supervisors

Ensure supervisors are clear on their responsibilities, including how to support employees with substance use issues and how and where to refer employees. Training should include awareness of the drug-free workplace policy, laws, potential issues within the workplace, and how to document actions relating to substance use issues.

9. Evaluating the program

Evaluate the program's effectiveness using employee and supervisor feedback and quantitative data around substance-related issues within the organization. This can help determine the areas in which the program is successful and where it requires improvements.

10. Providing support

Conduct regular meetings with employees to provide them with opportunities to share issues relating to substance use or the drug-free workplace policy, review individual progress, and share information relating to EAPs.

As an employer, it is crucial to comply with any federal and state laws that apply to the specific workplace. These laws can vary depending on the type of organization and professional roles provided, along with variations depending on the state. 

Not adhering to these laws can result in severe consequences and legal action. Employees can file a lawsuit against employers for reasons such as discrimination, wrongful dismissal, or invasion of privacy. As such, it may be advisable to utilize legal advice to ensure all policies and procedures adhere to these laws and are implemented correctly.

It is also required for employers to provide adequate information and training to employees to ensure that policies and procedures are clearly understood.

Federal laws

Most private employers are not legally required to have drug-free workplace policies. Federal contractors and grantees, and people in safety and security-sensitive industries are required to implement these policies. 

If drug-free workplace policies are created, certain federal laws must be adhered to, such as:

  • Drug-Free Workplace Act of 1988: This law was established to help prevent and target substance use in or affecting the workplace. It details the requirements of the employer to establish and enforce drug-free policies and inform all employees of these regulations and violation consequences.

  • Drug-testing laws: For some industries, it is a legal requirement for employers to conduct pre-employment and/or regular drug tests on employees. This includes roles within various transportation industries and governmental roles in which employees access classified and sensitive information.

  • Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990: This act protects employees from discrimination due to disability, which can include substance use disorders. This influences the hiring and management of individuals with past substance use issues or engagement in treatment.

  • Civil Rights Act of 1964: This act protects employees from discrimination or segregation on the grounds of race, color, religion, or national origin. This can influence the attitudes and behaviors of employers when managing instances of drug-free policy violations and drug testing and requires equal and consistent actions toward employees in regard to these policies.

  • Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993: This act states that employees are entitled to up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave to manage personal or familial medical conditions, including drug and alcohol treatment or related conditions. This can influence how employers support employees and prevent unfair dismissal or disciplinary action.

  • The National Labor Relations Act of 1935: This act provides employers of unionized workers with a set of requirements when implementing drug-free workplace policies and drug testing. This ensures employers collaborate and negotiate with unions around procedures and disciplinary actions.

State and local laws

State laws can impact how drug-free workplace policies are developed and implemented. This can include variations in the laws and regulations relating to drug testing, workers' compensation, and unemployment insurance. 

Laws around drug testing vary from state to state. In particular, this applies to various roles within healthcare, government, transportation, and manufacturing. For example, some states have laws that differ from federal laws around pre-employment drug testing and the consequences of positive results during employment, such as referral, disciplinary, or dismissal actions.

Additionally, insurance premiums, benefits, and compensation for accidents can vary by state. In some places, insurance premiums are lower for employees within organizations with drug-free workplace policies. 

Compensation for accidents and injuries considered to be a result of substance use may be denied in some states. Similarly, some states may deny unemployment benefits to individuals who have been dismissed or disciplined due to substance-related issues.

Union obligations

Unions are closely involved in the development and implementation of drug-free workplace policies and procedures and with the use of EAPs. Union representatives often collaborate with employers to ensure that the rights and requirements of employees are being met and that safe workplace environments are maintained.

Unions can also be involved in the development of manager and supervisor training around substance use issues and policy processes, and provide guidance in these circumstances. Union representatives often are involved in disciplinary or management meetings, such as return-to-work proceedings, to assist employees and ensure fair treatment. 

Sometimes unions provide EAPs rather than the employer, covering the costs of the program and being closely involved in the support of employees. [5]

As an employer, you have a legal right to protect your workplace environment and staff from potential harm caused by the use of drugs and alcohol. This includes implementing policies and procedures that can help manage and prevent these issues.

Employers can review employee performance and conduct necessary risk assessments to provide a basis for actions taken against policy violations. Depending on the circumstance, employers can be within their legal right to take disciplinary action or dismiss an employee who fails to comply with drug-free workplace policies, as long as these actions comply with regulations and laws.

Employers have the right to conduct drug tests on employees in certain circumstances, although this can vary depending on the organization and state laws. In some cases, employers can legally request a pre-employment drug test, provide conditional employment offers depending on test results, and refuse to hire individuals with a positive result.

Additionally, employers have the right to conduct drug tests during employment, if this is clearly specified and outlined within company policies. This can include regular or randomized testing, and tests following accidents, with reasonable suspicion, or upon return to work.

These laws vary from state to state but can permit employers the right to refuse or terminate employment, take disciplinary action, or make appropriate referrals.

Drug and alcohol use by clients

The use of drugs and alcohol by clients or service users can present a risk to employees and workplace safety. This might be more likely to occur in customer-facing roles such as hospitality or retail, residential facilities such as prisons and hospitals, and community-focused roles such as police officers and health or social workers.

In these cases, workplace policies may not apply or be enforceable, as these issues are not related to employees. However, other policies can be put in place to help protect employee and workplace safety. 

For example, employees in retail and hospitality may be permitted to refuse service to clients who are intoxicated and violent or inappropriate. Similarly, within prisons and hospitals, policies can be implemented around checking items being brought into the building or limiting access to drugs and alcohol. 

Additional resources

American Psychiatric Association Center for Workplace Mental Health

National Drug and Alcohol Screening Association

National Safety Council, Workplace Wellbeing Hub

National Safety Council and NORC at the University of Chicago, Substance Use: Prevention, Screening Tools, and Workplace Policies

Opioid Prevention at Work, Workplace Prevention Basics

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), Employer Resources

SAMHSA EAP Prescription Drug Toolkit

SAMHSA Drug-Free Workplace Helpline

Substance Abuse Program Administrators Association

US Department of Labor, Drug-Free Workplace Requirements

US Department of Labor, Preventing Substance Use in the Workplace