Creating and Maintaining a Substance Free Workplace

For a profitable, productive, and safe workplace, your business needs a compliant and current substance abuse policy. Impairment or illegal activity involving drugs or alcohol, especially by your employees, could cause serious harm and subject you to legal liability.

 Creating and Maintaining a Substance Free Workplace

Employers must address the possibility that employees might come to work impaired. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), 68.9% of adult illicit drug users are employed full or part time. Additionally, 79.3% of adult binge drinkers are employed either full or part time.

Drug and alcohol abuse leads to lost productivity and poor employee morale. Substance abuse also raises the risk for absenteeism, accidents, injuries, security breaches, sexual misconduct, and other negative behaviors.

A substance abuse policy can address these concerns as well as encourage abusers to seek help. Certain industries are required to establish drug-free workplace policies, but all employers would be well-advised to establish policies on substance abuse.

Note there is a difference in substance abuse policies and a Drug-Free Workplace Policy (DFWP). A DFWP is a policy that is provided by, maintained, and managed by a third-party vendor. A formal DFWP is required by some industries, including federally funded projects, those that have safety and security concerns, and for those companies regulated by the Department of Transportation. A substance free policy is administered by management with the help of its HR partner, such as provided by Resourcing Edge, a Professional Employer Organization (PEO).

Creating a Substance Free Workplace Policy

Obtain Expert Advice

Sound policy is critical. Make sure you partner with experts, such as Resourcing Edge and/or a Drug-Free Workplace consultant. Resourcing Edge can recommend a DFWP partner to our clients.

If your organization is large enough, and you suspect a significant alcohol or drug misuse problem, you may want to bring in a professional to assess how these issues are affecting the organization. A trained expert can help design a customized plan for your circumstances.

With an expert assessment, you can focus your efforts and resources where they are needed most. While medium and large organizations could benefit from a formal assessment, implementing an effective drug and alcohol policy does not have to be complicated or expensive.

Articulate a Clear Substance Free Workplace Policy

It’s important to have a clearly written drug and alcohol policy in the employee handbook that everyone must acknowledge by signature. Furthermore, during onboarding, employees should be specifically reminded of the substance-abuse policy.

Here are some of the issues a compliant policy covers:


Make sure the drug and alcohol policy is fairly and uniformly applied to all employees.

Address Prescription Drugs

Your substance free workplace program should spell out what employees should do if they are prescribed medications that contain a warning label, such as “avoid driving or operating heavy machinery.” Opioid painkillers and other prescription drugs can cause a person to feel dizzy, drowsy, lightheaded, and can slow motor skills and reactions times. Even over-the-counter medications can contain similar warnings.

While most employers have drug and alcohol policies that address illegal drugs and the use of medications without a prescription, many times these policies fail to address legally prescribed medications and over-the-counter drugs that impede an employee’s abilities to perform their duties.

If an employee is taking prescribed or over-the-counter drugs, the employee has the responsibility to discuss their job duties and requirements with the prescribing physician and/or pharmacist. If the use of the medication could compromise the employee’s safety or the safety of fellow employees or the public, it is the employee’s responsibility to call in sick, notify their supervisor, and/or follow other appropriate procedures.

Each employer should develop its own procedures for dealing with prescription and over-the-counter drug use.

Your policy should include the procedures or corrective actions to follow:


Be aware that testing for prescription drugs is generally prohibited since they can tell you what illness or disease the employee may have. There are exceptions, however, when it comes to a highly safety-sensitive workplace.

Consult Resourcing Edge to make sure your drug and alcohol policy on prescription drugs is legally compliant.

What About Marijuana?

While still illegal at the federal level, marijuana is legal in several states, either in prescription form or for recreational use. Organizations in states that have legalized marijuana in one form or another face additional difficulties when developing their substance free workplace policies.

While courts have not yet held that employers must accept on-the-job marijuana use, some states may protect off-the-job use of marijuana. Partner with Resourcing Edge to avoid any potential discrimination liabilities.

Learn more about medical marijuana and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

Train Managers, Supervisors, and HR Staff

Human Resources and upper management should understand their roles and responsibilities when it comes to identifying and implementing your drug and alcohol policy.

Resourcing Edge can provide formal training for management and supervisory staff about detecting signs of drug and alcohol use along with the procedures to follow if an employee is suspected of violating the drug and alcohol policy.

How Managers Can Maintain a Legally Compliant Substance Free Workplace

A supportive, substance free workplace starts with management. Management should understand and communicate the organization’s policies on substance use and abuse.

Managers are instrumental in identifying people under the influence to help ensure the safety and wellbeing of all employees. A committed management staff helps keep the organization drug free and potentially out of court.

Managers should take three actions as they deal with substance abuse issues in the workplace:

  1. Know the organization’s drug and alcohol policies and procedures, including first detection, drug testing, referrals, and support programs. Work with your PEO to enforce the substance free workplace policy fairly and consistently.
  2. Clearly communicate the policies and procedures with employees so they know exactly what is required and expected. There should be no misunderstanding. This may help prevent a lawsuit later.
  3. Be observant and know how to identify impaired and out-of-the-norm behavior. Increased accidents, lower productivity, interpersonal problems, and attendance and tardiness issues are all potential signs of drug or alcohol problems.

Obtain Expert Advice and Review Your Current Employee Handbook

Given the complexities and high risk regarding compliance, companies should work closely with human resources experts to craft their employee handbooks and substance free policies.

Two of the most common mistakes we see when it comes to companies’ substance free policies are: outdated handbooks and failure to provide all the necessary acknowledgements to remain legally compliant.

Consult with the experts at Resourcing Edge to help develop a legally compliant handbook. This will lessen risk, aid in management decisions, and set the standards of workplace behavior.

Managing a company’s human resources is tricky business. To comply with state, federal, and local employment laws, you need the kind of professional assistance a PEO can provide.

Resourcing Edge has experience developing and revising compliant employee handbooks for our clients. In addition to employee handbooks, Resourcing Edge provides clients with Employment Practices Liability Insurance and access to legal counsel should the need arise.

Contact Resourcing Edge for comprehensive advice on employee handbooks, substance free workplace policies, payroll, tax administration, risk management, compliance, and other human resources services. We’ll handle the HR and other administrative matters of your business, so you can focus on the bottom line.

Disclaimer: This blog is for informational purposes only and is not legal advice. Questions regarding compliance for your specific industry and location should be addressed to a professional.