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Meth Madness

Methamphetamine drug use is soaring throughout the country, to the detriment of users and employers. Heres what to do about it.

HR Magazine, December 2005

Merv Lopes was the ideal worker to handle the constant hum of life on the docks. The strength and agility gained from his years as a standout wide receiver at the University of Hawaii made him ideally suited for his $60,000-a-year job as a longshoreman, and he could work for hours without wearing out.

But it was more than his athletic ability that kept Lopes moving. It was his reliance on methamphetamines, known on the street as “ice” or “crank,” which can make users stay awake for days on end. While it may seem like the ideal drug for those who need to pack 28 hours worth of work into a 24-hour day, there’s a steep price to pay: Long-term use can cause everything from hallucinations to violence to irreparable brain damage.

In his case, Lopes immersed himself in the whirl of activity of moving cargo and driving heavy equipment around the docks. But in hindsight, he realizes the danger into which he was putting himself and others. “Staying up for days, you’re not quick to react,” he says. “On the waterfront it’s a very, very life-threatening situation. You could die, or you could hurt somebody else.”

When his employer confronted Lopes about his drug use and offered him help, he chose instead to walk off the job.

Lopes’ story is not an aberration. Across the country methamphetamine use is soaring. This highly addictive stimulant, once used primarily by blue-collar workers to stay awake on the job, is now finding its way to time-strapped soccer moms, lawyers, accountants and salespeople as a way to heighten productivity and focus.

As a result, no workplace is immune from meth. › White-collar or blue-collar, service industry or manufacturing, in rural or urban locations—methamphetamine does not discriminate. HR’s primary weapons against this highly addictive stimulant are awareness and prevention.

The Highs and the Lows

What’s unique about methamphetamine is the broad appeal to white-collar professionals—especially first-time drug users over the age of 30, according to law enforcement officials. What would make a highly educated, highly paid professional try such a dangerous drug? Meth initially makes users more productive, and its use is, at first, easy to disguise. That also makes it more alarming to employers.

“Meth initially heightens concentration and increases alertness and all of the other things that are desirable characteristics of employees. It also makes it harder to spot on the job,” says Carol Falkowski, director of research communications at Hazelden, a private alcohol and drug rehabilitation facility in Center City, Minn. “After a fairly short honeymoon period, many people move into addiction. They initially think they can control meth. In short order, meth starts to control them.” (See "From Superman to Addict".)

Doug Coleman, a Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) special agent in Washington, D.C., says that in the short term, employees may demonstrate an increased attention to detail and decreased fatigue. Theyre going to be bouncing off the walls, he says. Users might be able to stay up for several days, then crash and sleep for a couple of days. Sometimes they crash and you cant wake them up.

The drug also can take a physical toll. Personal hygiene may decline. Meth decreases users blood flow, causing an itching sensation that causes users to scratch themselves repeatedly, leading to skin lesions. Decreased blood supply also damages the soft tissue of the gums, and chemicals attack the tooth enamel, causing meth mouth, with teeth decayed down to the gum line.

Long-term effects can be even more dramatic. A UCLA study using high-resolution MRIs found that meth destroys the areas of the brain that control memory, emotion and reward systems. Regular meth users lose about 1 percent of their brain cells each year, which is comparable to the effects of Alzheimers disease.

The drug also can cause mood swings, paranoia and anxiety, and can increase the chance for stroke and high blood pressure.

The effects are hard things to control in the workplace, let alone in society, says Tim Dimoff, president of SACS Consulting & Investigative Services Inc. in Akron, Ohio. Some users steal from their job to support their habit, says the former narcotics detective, who has carved out a niche for himself specializing in high-risk workplace issues.

The link between meth and crime is perhaps most clear in Hawaii, where methamphetamine is by far the most significant drug threat, and where experts unanimously blame the high crime rate on drugs, according to the DEA.

Stress On The Workplace

The costs of meth use to employers can be staggering, driving up everything from absenteeism to workers' compensation claims to employee turnover.

Lopes recalls going days without sleep, then stepping into a pothole at work and tearing the ligaments in his knee. “If I was together and sharp, I could have caught myself better,” he says. Instead, he wound up with a workers’ comp claim.

In one Arkansas county alone, methamphetamine use costs employers $20 million to $25 million per year, according to a study by Katherine Deck, a researcher at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville. The study, conducted in Benton County, a place with slightly more than 100,000 workers, found that after they become addicted it takes four methamphetamine users to do the work of three nonusers. In addition, a meth user is five times more likely to be absent from work than a nonusing co-worker.

What’s more, the study found meth users in all industries and walks of life, from the government to doctors’ offices to poultry processing facilities. “There is no industry or occupation that is exempt,” Deck says.

The study was based on 3,000 surveys, to which nearly 600 workers responded. Of those surveyed, about 1.7 percent said they were using or had used meth—matching the national estimate of meth users. But the study numbers may have been low. “We were told again and again by law enforcement officers that we had underestimated the number of users,” Deck says.

Regardless, even a few cases of meth abuse can cause problems.

In Portland, Ore., Precision Castparts Corp., a manufacturer of metal products and components, has fired two people this year who tested positive for methamphetamine usage.

Both employees had bid on job promotions and were drug tested as part of that process. One of the workers completed his initial inpatient rehabilitation but failed the first random drug test, while the other “decided doing meth was a lot more fun than coming to work. The meth had totally taken control of his life,” says Dave Coates, Precision Castparts’ senior HR manager.

Coates says the experience has taught the company that it needs “to pay a lot closer attention to this and not be dependent on testing policies [alone] to catch the problem.”

To bolster its efforts, Precision Castparts plans to improve supervisory training. “We really need to educate our front-line supervisors on precursor behavior,” Coates says. For example, the company closely monitors performance over time, and does a lot of comparisons between individual and team performance. With one of the workers who was fired for meth use, “for a couple of weeks his productivity went through the roof.” Then that was followed by absenteeism.

But not all employers are as focused on prevention as Precision Castparts. Jerry Gjesvold, who has worked with hundreds of businesses as manager of employer services at Serenity Lane, a rehabilitation facility headquartered in Eugene, Ore., says some industries turn a blind eye to the problem. He cited the manufactured home industry in particular, where bonuses are paid based on productivity. Those who churn out more units can make more money.

In some industries, employees can’t pass drug screen tests. Rather than get rid of the workers, the companies have gotten rid of the testing, Gjesvold says, and have adopted a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.

An Ounce of Prevention

If some employers are ignoring meth abuse, many others are facing the situation head-on. That is certainly the case in Hawaii, where the high cost of living drives many employees to work two jobs simply to make ends meet. Little wonder, then, that the state has the highest per capita population of meth users, according to the DEA—or that companies are finding innovative ways to educate their workers on the drug’s dangers.

For example, filmmaker Edgy Lee of FilmWorks Pacific, which produces films and other projects in Hawaii, hooked up with Jeff Mueller, who runs a drug education and prevention program called RecoveryWorks Inc. Lee and Mueller produced a documentary on Hawaii’s meth problem that was simulcast during prime time on all the state’s television stations in 2004. That was followed this year by a film on meth and Hawaii’s youth.

Now the team’s efforts are moving into the workplace. It began at the request of the maritime industry, which wanted to educate its workforce about the dangers of meth. Films also are being produced for employees of other industries, such as hotel workers and agricultural workers, Lee says.

Gary North, senior vice president of Matson Navigation Co., a shipping company in Honolulu, says the idea originally developed as the Hawaiian Legislature was considering a bill last year that would have mandated annual drug-related education for employees. Although the bill didn’t pass, the maritime industry decided to proceed with its plans to have a training film produced specifically for its workers.

The short film, which was shown to Matson employees in September, features maritime workers who use meth. “It’s really helpful when someone can hear from a face they can identify with,” Mueller says.

The film is designed to trigger employee discussion. Muel- ler serves as facilitator during the training sessions, with the aim of educating those who don’t use drugs about the perils of methamphetamine, and encouraging those who use it to admit they have a problem.

“It’s education. It’s awareness. And I think this is unique,” says North, who doesn’t believe the maritime industry has a bigger problem with meth than any other industry in the state. Hawaii’s five shipping companies employ about 675 longshoremen. At Matson, a “handful” of employees are treated for methamphetamine use. “It’s who we don’t know [about] that we’re concerned about,” North says.

Currently, the industry has a “three-strike” program, and if someone is caught using drugs three times, they’re out of a job. But the industry wants to “create an environment in the workplace where if someone has a problem, they can step forward and not be penalized,” North says.

Because many longshoremen are quite experienced and take time to train properly, North says, “it’s a cheaper thing to have this preventive program than to have to replace people.”

But the effort doesn’t come without its costs. North plans to show the film twice a year during work hours. The 100 men at Matson earn an average of $70 an hour, and the training takes 45 minutes.


While education can be important, former narcotics detective Dimoff says the best way to counter drug use in the workplace is to set up drug testing programs. In the state of Ohio, for example, companies can’t bid on state construction contracts unless they have a drug testing program in place.

Larry Hellie, SPHR, who runs HHRC2, a management consultancy firm in Vancouver, Wash., says the ingredients in methamphetamine are water soluble, so they quickly pass through the body. As a result, testing days after meth use won’t catch the drug. But if someone does test positive, it’s difficult for users to claim that they were taking only over-the-counter cold remedies. “Medical review officers are pretty knowledgeable about meth. They’re hard to fake out.”

One company that has set up drug testing is Solon, Ohio-based Zircoa Inc., which produces industrial ceramics. New hires must take drug tests, and all employees are trained annually about drug abuse, says plant manager Scott Abel.

“People working next to a person with a drug problem know it before we do,” Abel says. Zircoa urges employees to come forward if they have a problem and get treatment. “We provide whatever they need to get back on their feet.”

While Ohio isn’t a hotbed for meth, the drug may very well be present, Abel says. Of job applicants selected for hire, he says, 20 percent to 25 percent don’t pass the initial drug screening test. Leading Abel to ask sarcastically, “Do I have a meth problem?”

Susan Ladika has been a journalist for more than 20 years, working in both the United States and Europe. Now based in Tampa, Fla., her freelance work has appeared in such publications as The Wall Street Journal-Europe and The Economist.


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