The newsroom staff at the Kansas City Star and Times was in an uproar last week over a memo from Publisher James Hale. Responding to a suggestion from Thomas Murphy, chairman of Capital Cities/ABC, the New York City-based owners of the papers, Hale told employees that drug-sniffing dogs might be used at the Missouri papers as part of a company-wide program to fight narcotics abuse.
After heated protests, however, Hale reconsidered and proposed instead to create an advisory committee of managers and employees to "free the workplace of drugs." In a separate memo to all Capital Cities workers, Murphy acknowledged the "distress and confusion" that had been sparked by the plan to bring in dogs. But he stressed his determination to move against drugs, telling his employees, "We absolutely cannot, and will not, tolerate drug trafficking, drug use or drug possession in the workplace."
What may have seemed a little too up to date in Kansas City has already become a part of life in offices and plants across the U.S. Companies no longer treat drug problems as an embarrassing aberration limited to a few low-level employees. While most firms have long been aware of the toll that alcoholism takes on workers, they are now confronted with widespread abuse of illegal drugs as well, from the shop floor to the executive suite.
Current estimates are that between 5% and 13% of the U.S. work force abuses drugs other than alcohol. Numerous studies have shown that such abuse means up to three times as many job-related accidents and ten or more times as many sick days. As a result, companies are cracking down.
The economic consequences of the problem are staggering. According to a study released by the Research Triangle Institute in June 1984, abuse of illegal drugs cost the U.S. $60 billion in 1983, up from $46 billion in 1979. Lost worker productivity in 1983 accounted for $33 billion. Some experts think the figure may be much higher.
Faced with such numbers, American business has gone to war against drugs. Says Michael Walsh, chief of clinical and behavioral pharmacology at the National Institute on Drug Abuse: "Nearly half of all the FORTUNE 500 firms are expected to have programs in place within a year to identify abuse and rehabilitate employees at company expense."
A growing number of major U.S. companies, including such firms as Exxon, Federal Express, Greyhound Lines, Southern California Edison, TWA, IBM and Lockheed, require all job applicants to pass urinalysis tests that screen for drugs. Some firms demand that experienced workers undergo such tests when the danger of impairment is simply too great to chance. At Rockwell, company pilots and employees who work with explosives are tested once a year.
When such measures are not enough, tougher actions are often taken. Many companies use undercover agents and drug-sniffing dogs to root out narcotics on their premises. Says Larry Curran, vice president of First Security, a Boston firm: "We're doing 15 to 20 drug investigations per week for corporations right now. That is an increase of 100% from last year."