In the pork industry, employee management efforts tend to focus on production procedures, recordkeeping and training. However one issue that is rarely discussed — perhaps even avoided — is alcohol and drug abuse. Yet neither agriculture nor rural communities are immune to such problems. Some evidence suggests the isolated setting can even add to the challenge.  

As a veterinarian, Paul Johnson, Climax, Ga., has seen the effects of substance abuse in the workplace and how it impairs individuals and their ability to work efficiently and safely.

He advises more producers to add drug and alcohol issues to their employee management repertoire. That means you need to become informed and learn how to deal with drug and alcohol issues before problems surface, not as they surface. If you need to find qualified help outside of the business operation, so be it.

Here, Johnson provides some of the insight that he’s gained in terms of addressing drug and alcohol issues and the various on-farm challenges that can occur.

Safety: Farming consistently ranks among the more dangerous businesses. Pork production units automatically present dangers to workers simply from the standpoint that there are large animals to handle. Add to that machinery, equipment and facilities, and there is the potential for injury or even death to occur.

Any worthy manager knows that training is essential for employee safety, but when someone arrives at work impaired by drugs or alcohol, he or she is an accident waiting to happen. What’s more, the person presents a risk to his fellow workers’ safety.

Also, don’t assume that just because you have all family labor that the problem doesn’t exist. Drug and alcohol abuse is an equal-opportunity problem — it can strike both family and non-family labor.

Employee morale: There is no greater threat to employee morale than having to work with an incapacitated person. Anger, fear and frustration develop within any employee when he or she has to work with a substance-abusing co-worker.

Employees will rarely come forward to inform management of the problem. Therefore, the owner’s only clue often comes from employee turnover, poor job performance or a high rate of injury or equipment damage. If management fails to act on and investigate these related issues, the employees’ overall respect can be lost.

Employees are the backbone of your business, and if substance abuse is present, your business will suffer. 

Legal issues: With today’s drug laws, if an employee is found to have illegal drugs placed within your equipment or vehicles, your property can be confiscated. If an employee sells drugs on your farm, law-enforcement officials will investigate you as well.

If an impaired employee causes another person’s death or injury, the liability to your business could be astronomical. Insurance companies can and will cancel coverage if repeated problems occur involving impaired employees.

What you can do: Management is responsible for providing a drug- and alcohol-free workplace.

Technologies to monitor drug and alcohol use have become remarkably simple. Urine-test kits can evaluate a variety of agents, and there are companies that will do the testing for you. Consult with your state labor agency and workmen’s compensation insurance company regarding the legalities and issues associated with drug testing.

This can be a difficult program to implement. It may mean losing key workers; retribution from terminated employees; or elimination of potential new employees. 

Before you start testing employees, establish a written protocol outlining your farm’s policy on drugs and alcohol at the workplace. Make sure everyone understands the policy, testing procedures and penalties for failing a test. Then have everyone sign a written policy document.

A drug- and alcohol-free workplace has its rewards, says Johnson. “Employee morale and worker productivity will improve, the environment will be safer for all, and you may even get lower insurance premiums. It’s well worth the effort.”