Washington’s double standard on drugs and alcohol

Guest Columnist

  • Friday, October 3, 2008 3:03am
  • Opinion

State lawmakers across the country are making it harder for workers injured on the job while under the influence of illegal drugs or alcohol to collect workers’ compensation. In fact, 42 states now grant employers and insurers permission to deny or restrict workers’ comp benefits to those injured while intoxicated or impaired.

Missouri, for example, allows insurers to withhold 50 percent of the workers’ comp benefits when injuries occur in violation of employers’ alcohol and drug policies.

Washington, a state which writes workers’ comp coverage and only allows larger companies to self insure, is one of the eight that does not restrict or deny benefits in these cases. It should, and lawmakers returning to Olympia next January ought to make it a priority.

Our state’s elected officials may want to look to North Carolina for help. Legislators there enacted a new law earlier this year that could be a starting point.

Under North Carolina’s H.B. 99, if a claimant tests positive following an accident, the burden shifts to the injured worker to prove he or she was not intoxicated or impaired. If the injured party tests positive, benefits are restricted. The individual can rebut the presumption by showing evidence that his or her faculties were not affected. That shifting of burden should encourage more responsible behavior and fix the blame squarely where it belongs.

By contrast, Washington lawmakers have been national leaders in cracking down hard on people who drive under the influence of drugs or alcohol. Those drivers cause a disproportionate number of accidents.

The Washington State Patrol sets up DUI emphasis patrols to get them off the road. We have anti-drunk driving public service campaigns, strong laws allowing prosecutors to charge special DUI-related crimes such as vehicular homicide and state lawmakers lowered the permissible blood alcohol level from .1 to .08.

But Washington law virtually ignores the influence of illicit drugs and alcohol in the state’s Workers’ Compensation system. Isn’t a drunken dump truck driver or a crane operator high on cocaine just as dangerous to his or her co-workers and the public as a driver under the influence speeding down I-5 or Broadway the wrong way?

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, workers under the influence of drugs or alcohol are three times more likely to be involved in a workplace accident and five times more likely to file a workers’ comp claim.

The federal government’s Center for Disease Control points out that rates of alcohol problems by industry among workers 18 to 49 years old is nearly one in five in the construction and almost one in six in agriculture, food handling, transportation and among laborers. So the problem is serious.

In the past, employers try to deal with illegal drug and alcohol problems through pre-employment and random testing. But testing has been a bone of contention for years because some question its validity. Recently, an Arizona Supreme Court ruling strengthened the case for random testing when it resolved conflicting lower court rulings involving workers who tested positive shortly after they were injured.

Unfortunately, the workers’ comp trends are heading the wrong way. According to Business Insurance magazine, workers’ compensation payments have increased 30 percent nationwide over the last 10 years to $51.69 billion in 2003. They rose another $1.67 billion the following year alone.

On-the-job accidents are costly to employers, those inadvertently injured by others under the influence and for the families of impaired workers. Providing safe work places is the first line of defense in controlling costs. The cold, hard facts are today, costs matter if Washington is to have a business climate that creates jobs in a safe workplace.

Don C. Brunell is president of the Association of Washington Business.

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