The Straits Times
FEB 13 1998

Moderate drinkers 'cause most damage in workplace'

CONTRARY to popular belief, it is the moderate drinkers, and not hard-core alcoholics, who cause the most damage at the work-place, says a new United Nations report.

According to the draft report prepared for the International Labour Organisation (ILO), studies conducted in a number of countries show that 70 to 80 per cent of alcohol-related incidents can be traced to moderate drinkers who consume low amounts of alcohol prior to or at work.

One reason for these incidents, such as accidents, quarrels and absenteeism, is the sudden intoxication caused by one drink too many, says the study.

More importantly, the number of moderate drinkers is much higher than that of heavy drinkers, who may in turn develop physical tolerance and other mechanisms to mask their behaviour.

The study also contradicts many other popular beliefs, such as alcohol and drug abuse is higher among certain sections of the population, like the unemployed.

While alcohol addiction is high among the unemployed, the ILO's drug and alcohol prevention senior adviser Behrouz Shahandeh estimates that 65 to 70 per cent of the problem drinkers are to be found among those employed.

Although those working in sectors like food and beverage, transportation and maritime services are more vulnerable to become alcohol and drug abusers, this problem is not confined to them.

The study says that high rates of alcohol use have been observed among lawyers, company directors, military personnel, the medical profession, and military personnel and police officers.

The report also cites other studies conducted in a number of countries which have found high rates of drug abuse among doctors, nurses, pilots as well as among lorry drivers and assembly-line workers.

Countries such as the United States have done extensive studies on the problem of alcohol and drug abuse.

One study reported that 9 per cent of the country's workforce are heavy drinkers while between 2 and 15 per cent are said to be taking alcohol or drugs shortly before or while at work.

More than -1/3 of European employers interviewed for a recent study claimed that alcohol abuse was a major cause for absenteeism, impaired performance and reduced motivation.

The ILO report claims that the economic costs of alcohol abuse amounted to US$70 billion (S$113 billion) a year in the US and US$3.4 billion in Australia.

Traditionally, it was left to the employee to seek help for his or her addiction.

But officials at the ILO and the UN Drug Control Programme (UNDCP) here have been looking at a different angle: the involvement of management in cooperation with trade unions and other organisations to act and assist before an employee becomes addicted to alcohol or drugs.

A two-day meeting held in Geneva last week to review a five-year programme concluded that the promotion of prevention projects at the workplace and the inclusion of it as a management concern as part of total quality management had been successful.