All Types of Impairment Can Create Safety Risks

Expanding the scope of impairment in the workplace.

Claire Stroer, MPH, CHES
February 22, 2021

When you think about the phrase “impairment in the workplace,” what typically comes to mind? For many, images of a worker using some sort of drug (legal or illegal) might surface. Others might recall the difficulty a coworker had performing their best when dealing with a substance use disorder. While substance misuse is a critical component of addressing impairment in the workplace and on the road, it is not the only safety concern employers should heed.

Stop to consider other ways your performance and safety might be impacted by different situations: experiencing fatigue from caring for a young child, dealing with stress or shock from a personal or work-related crisis, or even certain medical emergencies such as hypoglycemia. Any of these scenarios can affect a worker’s physical and mental abilities, preventing them from functioning at 100% and creating fitness for duty concerns.

With this in mind, the National Safety Council has re-envisioned how we talk about and address impairment at work and on the road. NSC urges that employer policies and procedures outline workplace impairment as anything that could impede one’s ability to function normally or safely as a result of a number of factors – from chemical substances, such as alcohol, opioids or cannabis, to physical factors like fatigue, as well as experiencing mental distress and social factors like stress. Many of these factors can be interrelated. For example, an employee who is stressed might be experiencing chronic fatigue, resort to substance use, or both.

NSC put this new description of impairment to the test by conducting an employer survey to better understand how workplaces are addressing impairment from diverse causes. Encouragingly, 93% of employers surveyed agree with this broader description. More than half of employers – 52% – say impairment is negatively impacting workforce safety. This willingness to explore a multi-faceted approach to impairment in the workplace is imperative to addressing it. 

Other highlights from the survey include: 

  • Over 90% of employers are just as concerned about the impairing effects of chronic stress and mental health disorders as they are about alcohol and illicit opioids
  • 45% say impairment is causing more near misses, and 39% say impairment is causing more injuries
  • While employee assistance programs (EAPs) and drug testing are more broadly covered in organizational policies (61%), accommodation protocols for medical cannabis and fatigue management are far less widely covered  (32% and 30%, respectively).
  • Across all modes of internal communication, substance impairment received more attention than any  other impairment topic

It is not surprising that workplaces have more policies and internal programming around substance impairment compared to other causes of impairment, but there are many other hidden risks that employers may not immediately see when it comes to impairment in the workplace. All types of impairment can present safety risks, and gaps should be addressed by improving how safety leaders and organizations identify, talk about and prioritize these topics. 

In 2020, we saw first-hand that issues such as mental distress and substance misuse are only worsening due to the burdens of the COVID-19 pandemic. Moving forward, employers have a distinct role to play in creating a workplace culture that supports employee wellbeing and ensures employees are fit for duty. This includes learning to recognize employee impairment, preventing employees from working while impaired, developing and enforcing policies in a fair, consistent manner, and making sure employees are aware of their responsibilities and policies regarding impairment. Most important, the right workplace environment can help prevent further substance misuse, stress, fatigue and other issues, while also helping those already affected. 

It’s time to address impairment holistically. Calculate your costs, download resources and learn more at nsc.org/Impairment.

Results based on an NSC survey of 350 industry professionals from U.S. employers with 50 or more employees with organizational decision-making authority, conducted May 18 to June 2, 2020. 

Claire Stroer, MPH, CHES

Claire Stroer is senior program manager, impairment, at the National Safety Council.

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