The Dangers of Impairment in Safety Critical Industries

It’s the last week of June, and we have reached our final topic for National Safety Month 2019: impairment. Most accidents can be avoided when workers are attentive, focused and engaged on the job. Impairment is caused by substances or situations that impede on our ability to focus, make judgements and operate machinery safely. Impairment takes on many forms but can come from consuming alcohol or drugs, lack of sleep or even stress and anxiety. Between the opioid epidemic, the move towards the legalization of marijuana and simply everyday challenges life throws our way that distract us, impairment threatens safety both on and off the job. Regardless of the industry, impairment decreases the quality of work while increasing the risk of injury in the workplace.


Long shifts, looming heights, dangerous equipment and extreme weather. These are just a few conditions construction workers face in their everyday work lives that contribute to the stress and physical exhaustion of the job. A study conducted by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration found that construction and mining were the two industries with the highest rates of heavy-drinking employees. 14.3% of construction workers in the study were diagnosed with a substance abuse disorder. These statistics are concerning for a profession that relies on focus, coordination and judgment. Impairment while working on a hazardous job site can have fatal consequences. Alcohol impairment doesn’t always come from drinking on the job. A hangover from the night before can decrease focus and increase fatigue, also posing a safety risk.


Another common form of impairment is drug use, most commonly marijuana and opioids. The effects of marijuana include loss of balance and coordination, delayed response time to stimuli and danger, decreased alertness and impaired depth and sensory perception, all of which pose threats to workplace safety. In addition, it is difficult to detect if someone is high on the job. There is no breathalyzer test for marijuana, and a drug test doesn’t accurately indicate whether someone is currently high since it can stay in their system for up to 30 days or more. The policies surrounding the legalization of marijuana cause a lot of controversy nationwide. Some states have completely banned it, while many others have decriminalized and/or legalized it for medical purposes. Ten states and the District of Colombia have fully decriminalized it for recreational use. Overall, it is becoming more easily accessible around the country. Two weeks ago, Nevada became the first state to make it illegal for employers not to hire a candidate if they test positive for marijuana. However, there are some exceptions to this law. Federal jobs are exempt from this law, since marijuana is still illegal at the federal level, as well as safety-sensitive jobs such as drivers, doctors and construction workers.

The opioid crisis began in the late 1990s when pharmaceutical companies encouraged the prescription of opioids, assuring the medical community that addiction would not be a problem. In January 2019, it was reported that a person is more likely to die from an opioid overdose than a motor vehicle crash (1 in 96). Opioid overdose death rates are even higher in industries that have physically demanding work conditions and high injury rates, such as construction and mining. Many workplace injuries require pain management of some form, and opioids or narcotics are the go-to drugs, for now. While opioids may provide short term relaxation and relief, they also have harmful effects including nausea, drowsiness, confusion and slowed breathing. This slowed breathing can cause Hypoxia, a condition that results from too little oxygen reaching the brain. Hypoxia can lead to permanent brain damage or even death. Opioids can pose a unique problem when it comes to restricting their use on a worksite because many times these are prescribed by doctors.

Other forms of impairment

Substances are not the only cause of impairment. Other external factors or situations in a worker’s life can cause the same kinds of distracted behavior, including:

  • Treatment medication side effects e.g. antibiotics causing nausea
  • Fatigue
  • Family or relationship problems
  • Being exposed to extreme temperatures
  • Experiencing bullying, abuse or sexual harassment
  • Having unresolved conflict with an employer or employees

General prevention tips to reduce impairment risks in the workplace

  • Develop and implement clear, written company policies regarding substance use.
  • Implement strict but clear company drug testing.
  • Train supervisors and employees to spot first signs of substance abuse and correctly handle drug policy procedures.
  • Treat substance abuse as a disease.
  • Utilize employee assistance programs to help employees who may need treatment return to work.

Whether you are a safety professional or just want to improve safety in your workplace, discussing and initiating effective practices is key to having happier, more productive employees. National Safety Month may only be 30 days long, but that doesn’t mean safety awareness should stop July 1st.

By Leah Carson

June 26, 2019

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