Drugs are everywhere, it seems—from the legally prescribed ones, such as opiate painkillers, to the illegal ones such as crack, heroin and methamphetamine. And then there’s marijuana, legal in some states, illegal in others. Not to mention alcohol, which millions of people are addicted to, while millions of others use it responsibly.

As a human being, you’ve been touched by this. We all know someone who has, or had, a substance abuse problem. As an employer in the green industry, if you haven’t yet dealt with an addicted employee, count yourself lucky; at some point, you probably will.

The abuse of drugs and alcohol in the workplace costs money—lots of it. The U.S. Department of Labor identifies five main areas of substance-abuse-related loss: decreased productivity; increased absenteeism and tardiness; increased use of medical benefits; shrinkage (theft); higher rates of accidents and worker’s compensation claims.

Substance abusers are 3.6 times more likely to have an accident on the job, and five times more likely to have one off the job. Being under the influence plays a role in 47 percent of serious workplace injuries and 40 percent of workplace deaths. And, despite prevailing stereotypes, seventy percent of people with addiction problems are employed.

Owners of landscape and irrigation contracting companies vary widely in how they handle this issue. Some have formal, written policies mandating a drug-free workplace, with consequences clearly spelled out. Some conduct regular, random drug tests; still others test only when abuse is suspected, or after accidents.

Stan Hoglund, owner of Hoglund Landscape & Biobarriers in Fargo, North Dakota, doesn’t have a drug-free workplace policy, nor does he do testing. “I only have a few employees, and I just hire people that I hope will be good,” he says. He trusts his instincts, saying that he can read people after all the years he’s been in business.

He relies on the judgment of his foreman of 30 years, since he’s the one out there in the field every day with the crew members. “If he senses something’s wrong with one of his guys, he’ll just let him go. They have to be on the ball; otherwise, he doesn’t want them around.”

Karl Fjoslien owns Landscape West, Inc., in Redondo Beach, California. It’s a small design/build company that typically has anywhere from six to ten employees, all hired via referrals from trusted employees. He considers that a form of pre-employment screening.

“I don’t drug-test anybody, but we do check people out ahead of time. We also tell them, ‘Don’t drink on the job.’ I don’t mind if they drink alcohol, but they should save it for the weekend. Heavy work-night drinkers won’t last here; the work is too physically demanding.”

Fjoslien admits that 20 years ago, when he was younger and just starting his business, he kept things “pretty loose. It was kind of crazy back then. I’m just grateful nothing happened.” Now, his policy is zero-tolerance.

Sue Thompson, co-owner of Eugene, Oregon-based Thompson Landscape Company, feels so strongly about having a drug-free workplace that she’s put a statement about it on her company’s “About Us” page.

Establishing such a policy was “absolutely essential,” according to her.

The move was made after a number of troubling incidents, including the discovery that a member of the management team had been dealing drugs.

There’s been a lot in the news lately about the widespread misuse of prescription opiate painkillers. Thompson’s workers haven’t been immune to this trend. Another prescription drug that some of her people have struggled with is Adderal, a stimulant used to treat Attention Deficit Disorder. “There are drugs out there that I didn’t even know existed. Once the drug culture comes into your workplace, well, we’ve had flurries where we’ve had to fire everybody.”

Signs and symptoms

Like poor poker players, substance abusers often have ‘tells’ that can signal the problem they’re trying desperately to hide. A pattern of calling in sick on Mondays and Fridays, for instance, or frequently appearing ‘hung over.’ Flaky behavior from someone who was previously reliable is another.

Fjoslien recalls one man who worked for him a few years ago. The giveaway in his case was “his overall attitude. Very schizophrenic; just a grumpy guy.”

Through her company’s drug-free workplace program training, Thompson’s supervisors have learned how to recognize behavioral signs that someone may be abusing a substance. Doing things like ‘losing it’ with an outburst of rage, mishandling a piece of equipment, or having a sudden decline in one’s quality of work will result in a drug test.

It’s important not to jump to conclusions, however. Bizarre behavior on the job might have nothing to do with drugs or alcohol, but rather, with stress at home.

“Sometimes, a worker just needs the time and space to figure out a family crisis or financial issue,” Thompson says. “Or maybe he’s slipping and falling on jobsites because he needs a new pair of boots.” A person could look hangdog because a new baby is keeping him awake at night. He could also have a medical condition.

Richard I. Lehr, Esq., Birmingham, Alabama, is a partner in Lehr Middlebrooks Vreeland & Thompson, P.C. He is general counsel for NALP (the National Association of Landscape Professionals, formerly PLANET) and provides human resources assistance to the organization’s members. When asked if he’d advise any landscape firm, large or small, to have a stated, written drug and alcohol policy, he says, “Absolutely.”

Lehr says it’s a matter of safety, both for a company’s employees and for its clients. “In the landscape and irrigation business, you deal with power equipment and vehicles. A policy should require pre-employment drug screening and random testing, as well as testing after job-related accidents, injuries or damage to property, or when there’s reasonable suspicion of drug or alcohol abuse based on observation of behavior.”

If you think your company needs a drug-free workplace policy, there are many resources available. NALP offers its members sample drug-free workplace policies and guidance regarding testing protocols.

There are also companies that help set up drug-free workplaces.

Working Partners of Canal Winchester, Ohio, is one of those companies.

Manager Anna Vizmeg turned to the firm when her company decided to start bidding on state DOT jobs, and found that a drug-free workplace program was required. Vizmeg Landscape, Inc., is a Stow, Ohio-based design/build and maintenance company.

Dee Mason, Working Partners’ founder and CEO, says a drug-free workplace program, no matter where you get it, should include the following five components:

Number 1: Have a written substance-abuse policy. This should outline the responsibilities of both the employer and the employee. It should explain what type of conduct is prohibited, the types and circumstances of testing, and the consequences for violations.

Number 2: Educate the employees.Give them information about the effects of alcohol and drug abuse on their health, their personal lives and their work. Tell them about resources available to them through the company and the community, should they or their families need help.

Number 3: Train your supervisors. They need to know that when documenting an employee’s behavior, one must stick to very objective, documentable facts, figures and dates, with an eye towards, “How would this look in court?”

Number 4: Have an employee assistance plan of action. If an employee is discovered to have a substance abuse problem, what then? Are you going to terminate him, or give him a chance to seek treatment? Can he return to duty afterwards?

In some states, a contract with an outside employee assistance program (EAP) is required as part of a drug-free workplace program. Having an EAP doesn’t mean you’ll be footing the bill for a stint in rehab. All that the EAP may need to do is refer the person to community resources already paid for by tax dollars.

Number 5: Conduct drug and alcohol testing. This gives you objective, scientific evidence that a certain level of a substance exists within an employee’s system.

Medical marijuana

Twenty-three states and the District of Columbia have legalized marijuana for medicinal use. Other states will probably join them. Recreational marijuana use is fully legal in the states of Alaska, Colorado, Oregon and Washington.

Even if marijuana isn’t legal in your state, this is an issue that every employer—not just those in the green industry—needs to start thinking about.

Many companies operate across state lines, and draw employees from other states as well.

Thompson says her Oregon-based company wasn’t significantly impacted once marijuana became medically, then recreationally, legal there. “For us, marijuana is no different from anything else, if it impairs someone’s ability to stay safe and work efficiently and effectively. We have far more problems, frankly, with alcohol.”

“Our workers just need to show up sober, period,” said Thompson. Employees are allowed to test positive for THC (the active ingredient in marijuana) up to a certain level.

Lehr said the general principle is this: even if a state permits the medical use of marijuana, an employer still has the right to prohibit it in his workplace. The analogy is that states allow alcohol to be sold, but that doesn’t mean employers have to tolerate someone who comes to work drunk. Nor does an employer have to accept someone who tests positive for drugs that are illegal at the federal level. He said that so far, courts have backed employers on this issue.

If a worker has a prescription for medical marijuana, and the employer is concerned about this person’s safety performing certain job functions or using certain machines, he could say, “If and when you no longer have that prescription, and you want to be reconsidered for employment, then contact us and we’ll see what’s available.”

A second chance

Thompson has fired and rehired several individuals who’ve been caught abusing crystal meth. If they return with a Narcotics Anonymous sponsor and can demonstrate that they’re in recovery, they’re given another chance, as did one man who currently works for her. He’s doing really well, and even has his own crew.

Vizmeg’s company also gives employees who ‘tested dirty’ the opportunity to clean up and come back to work. Such individuals are subjected to monthly random drug testing over the following year. Test dirty again, and they’re gone.

Having a drug-free workplace has a lot of advantages. A lot of people with drug and alcohol problems won’t even apply if they know that’s your policy. It can even change the entire atmosphere of a business. “Not too long ago, I had an employee who’d previously worked for another landscape outfit that didn’t have the policy,” said Vizmeg.

“He was just amazed at what a difference there was between there and here. People had better attitudes; they showed up on time more. The quality of the people was simply superior. I think having the policy sets a higher standard.”

Thompson has done a lot of thinking about this issue, far beyond the effect drug and alcohol abuse has had on her bottom line. “A drug culture is a culture of deceit and desperation,” she said. “We need to be able to care for and respect our employees. It’s an issue of both safety and self-respect. We can’t provide quality professional services with drug abuse going on.”

“If we allow that, we’re essentially saying, ‘We don’t care about your wellbeing, your future or your ability to provide for yourself and your family,’ and that’s just not the case. We’re a small, family-run company, with some 30 employees, and every one of them matters.”

Ultimately, you’ll have to make the decision if having a drug-free workplace is the right move for your operation or not. There’s no single right answer to this; it will depend on your evaluation of your business and the people in it.