A great many people may have missed a story about Eskom's latest plan to deal with workers and visitors at its offices in the Eastern Cape - and the more I think about it, the more I think Eskom's initiative is an excellent idea.
What Eskom has done is introduce daily, compulsory, breathalyser tests for all its employees when they report for work and, if they go out, when they return to the offices too. Moreover, customers at their offices for an appointment are required to take the test and, should the customer refuse, he or she is denied entry.
This might seem draconian, maybe even absurd - and some might claim that it's an invasion of privacy too - but the reality in South Africa is that substance abuse is extremely widespread and there are thousands of lives lost every year because substances discolour judgment.
Let's discount the road accidents for the moment - we all know just how extreme that carnage is - and look at some of the other elements of workplace alcohol abuse: the primary reason for Eskom imposing the test.
The most recent figures from the American Council for Drug Education states that three out of every four substance abusers are employed full-time and they are five times more likely to injure themselves or their co-workers. It estimates that about 40% of all industrial fatalities are the result of substance abuse.
Added to this are the costs to the company of absenteeism because serial substance abusers are ten times more likely not to turn up for work. They are also about 33% less productive than their non-drinking colleagues.
To make matters even more worrying, Drug Free South Africa says that a significant number of people seeking treatment for alcohol and drug abuse from organisations such as the South African National Council on Alcohol and Drug Abuse (Sanca) are executives and professionals in highly paid positions.
So this substance abuse is not limited to a truck driver or machine operator, but extends throughout the organisation and, in many cases, alcohol consumption is tolerated too.
Like the American research, Drug Free SA says that a 2007 study showed the consequences of substance abuse in the workplace included low productivity, absenteeism, failure to meet deadlines, poor performance and criminal activity such as fraud and theft. It says it also leads to a higher number of disputes with managers and supervisors.
There are some interesting figures about the situation in South Africa, which although old are probably still relevant: 40% of the people who seek treatment for addiction to substances are employed full time and more than 60% of the addicts are adults; The South African Association for Social Workers in Private Practice (SAASWIPP) says that between 6% and 20% of the workforce is dependent on substances while Sanca puts this figure at at least 10%. SAASWIPP says that 50% of workplace accidents are substance related. The media and the long-distance trucking industry are singled-out as having high levels of substance abuse but Sanca says this is misleading because alcohol and dagga usage are widely found among blue-collar workers in all industries as well.
Perhaps surprisingly, the South African Labour Relations Act requires employers to investigate the causes of an employee's incapacity at work and, if this is found to be linked to substance abuse, must offer appropriate treatment before being able to dismiss a drunken or drugged individual.
In view of this, I think that Eskom's decision to implement breathalyser testing for all employees and visitors to its Eastern Cape offices is a bold step and one that many other companies should consider.
As Eskom says, its technicians - and for that matter all its employees - are working in potentially hazardous environments and are using the roads to get to and from work anyway, sometimes driving Eskom's vehicles.
Eskom's spokesman Ntosh Mafumbatha says the testing helps to ensure that no one works while under the influence of any substance and goes on to add that Eskom's core values state that: "no harm will come to employees, customers or external stakeholders". Mafumbatha says to achieve this Eskom has programmes in place to improve the health, safety and security of its employees and that includes testing for substance abuse.
I think that similar programmes should be introduced in all companies (including the media). Just consider the dangers of having drug- or alcohol-fuelled workers on a building site, in an industrial foundry, underground in a mine or behind the controls of a drag-line or truck at an open cast quarry.
And I can't imagine why anyone should object to it either. As any high-performing athlete, sportsman, Grand Prix racing driver, or first violinist will tell you alcohol cannot enhance performance - it can only undermine it.
So why should we tolerate substance abuse in the workplace?
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