Substance Abuse in Decline, but Still Heavy in Some Fields

What types of workers are most likely to be drug and alcohol abusers?

A new study by the Health and Human Services Department, intended to pinpoint the occupations most prone to substance abuse, confirmed that the problems are scattered over a wide spectrum of fields--including everything from construction to sports.

Although experts found it hard to draw generalizations from the findings, the occupations reporting the highest rates of abuse tended to be dominated by men or young workers.

Drug and alcohol abuse also appear to be more widespread where they are fostered by the “workplace culture,” said Elena Carr, director of a substance abuse institute connected with the AFL-CIO, the umbrella labor organization.


Carr said that in the construction industry, for example, drinking and drug use long have been “part of what was expected.”

And, in fact, two categories of construction workers ranked at the top of the study’s drug abuser list--supervisors and other skilled workers. More than 17% of both groups reported using illegal drugs.

Mark A. de Bernardo, executive director of the nonprofit employer group Institute for a Drug-Free Workplace, called the findings on construction work “very alarming because that’s a safety-sensitive job--not just worker safety, but also public safety.”

Not far behind in illicit drug use were food preparers, waiters and waitresses, and helpers and laborers. Next came the more glamorous category of writers, designers, artists and athletes, 13.1% of whom said they used illegal drugs.


On the other hand, people in jobs dependent on public trust--such as police officers, teachers and child care workers--had the lowest rates of illicit drug use, according to the survey. Police accounted for the lowest figure, 1%.

In general, the survey found that the types of workers who used illegal drugs were also more likely to drink heavily. But police officers were a glaring exception: 10.8% reported heavy alcohol use, well above the overall average for all workers of 7.1%.

The findings--based on surveys of more than 33,000 U.S. workers ages 18 to 49 polled from 1991 to 1993--are believed to understate the actual extent of substance abuse. Despite precautions to assure respondents of confidentiality, “we’re pretty certain there’s underreporting,” said Joe Gfroerer, the Health and Human Services official who supervised the study.

Still, agency officials were cheered by one finding: The percentage of people employed full time reporting illicit drug use declined from 16.7% in 1985 to 7% in 1992, and appears to have held fairly steady over the last few years.

Heavy alcohol use over the same period edged down from 9.7% to 7.1%.

The report “tells us that we’ve made very real and substantial progress since the mid-1980s,” said HHS Secretary Donna E. Shalala in a news release. “It tells us that prevention strategies are reaching employees, especially those in positions of public trust and public safety. But it also tells us we need to do more, and we need to team up with labor and management in a number of industries.”

However, workplace experts disagree over how best to combat substance abuse and even if the problem is genuinely on a downtrend.

A favorite approach by employers has been to subject employees and prospective hires to drug testing; a study released last week by the American Management Assn. found that 81% of major U.S. firms conducted such testing in 1995, the highest percentage since the organization started studying the topic 10 years ago.


Still, AMA research director Eric Rolfe Greenberg said there is no statistical evidence to indicate that such testing deters drug use. In fact, his survey found that 4% of prospective hires tested positive for drugs in 1995, up slightly from 3.8% in 1994, therefore raising the possibility that drug use is increasing.

Far more effective than testing but less widely used, Greenberg said, are workplace drug education programs and training supervisors to be alert for signs of substance abuse among people on their staffs.

Another issue, Carr said, is whether employer drug-testing programs simply put people out on the street without helping them deal with their substance-abuse problems. “The ‘test and terminate’ mentality is not going to solve the problem in society,” she said. “It’s just going to move it.”

Times staff writer Stuart Silverstein can be reached by phone at (213) 237-7887 or by e-mail at:


Drug Use Among Workers

Percentage of workers, by occupation, who reported using illegal drugs at least once during the month before they were polled.

Most Frequent Drug Users


1) Construction workers, 17.3%

2) Construction supervisors, 17.2.

3) Food preparation, 16.3.

4) Waiters and waitresses, 15.4.

5) Helpers and laborers, 13.1.

Least Frequent Drug Users

1) Police and Detectives, 1.0%

2) Administrative support, 2.2

3) Teachers, 2.3

4) Child-care workers, 2.6

5) Dental and health aides, 2.8

Source: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services study of 33,505 workers from 1991-93