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Tolerance of workplace impairment must end

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After decades of tragic accidents, New Mexico has become serious and determined about drivers on our roads who are impaired by alcohol or drugs. It’s time to do the same for drugs and alcohol in our workplaces.

A bill in the 2014 legislative session attempted to do just that. The bill didn’t make it this year, but we’re going to keep trying. It’s too important to give up.

It’s time to change the behavior of New Mexico workers who think it’s OK to use drugs or alcohol at work. To make that happen, we are trying to change the New Mexico workers’ compensation law so that a worker who gets injured while under the influence of drugs or alcohol receives a substantial penalty against workers’ compensation benefits.

New Mexicans have learned from long and painful experience that when people are irresponsible enough to endanger others by the way they use drugs or alcohol, the only way to get their attention is with penalties. New Mexico employers are constantly challenged to keep their workplaces free of alcohol and drugs. Maybe that’s because the workers who come to work impaired don’t think their employers are serious.

Public policy should be consistent in delivering the message that drugs and alcohol in the workplace are not acceptable. Our workers’ compensation law and some of the rulings of our higher courts now encourage the opposite by requiring employers and their insurance carriers to provide workers’ compensation benefits even though it is obvious that drugs and alcohol contributed to the accident and resulting injury.

While impaired workers are endangering themselves and putting others at risk, they are also adding to the cost of workers’ compensation insurance premiums, and that affects all of us. Every dollar in increased workers’ compensation insurance cost is a dollar employers can’t spend on raising wages, hiring additional workers or investing in their businesses.

And though we are not doing too badly in the cost of workers’ compensation insurance compared to other states, our trend is going in the wrong direction. Workers’ compensation insurance premiums for New Mexico are increasing 4 percent for 2014. This is the sixth highest increase in the nation. Premiums are decreasing for 19 states at the same time.

The cost of insurance is driven by the cost of claims, and our claim frequency is 20 percent higher than the national average. These statistical trends are watched closely by businesses looking to relocate or expand.

If all that isn’t enough reason to change the law, New Mexico’s higher courts have given an explicit direction to the Legislature to fix the drug and alcohol provisions of the statute because they are so badly worded that they literally can’t be understood.

A coalition of business groups has been trying to fix this part of our workers’ compensation law for years.

We are always stopped by the same hollow arguments, offered by the same interest groups, based on the same morally bankrupt logic, and accepted by some legislators based on the same political alliances. Don’t punish the poor worker because he made a mistake. Don’t punish the poor worker’s family. We even hear it is the employer’s fault if workers are drunk or stoned on company time.

It took a long time and many tragic deaths for New Mexicans to stop accepting excuses for drunken driving. Nowadays our sympathies go to the innocent men, women and children who were killed or maimed. We hope it doesn’t take so long for our state to stop tolerating drug or alcohol abuse at work – even if the abuser injures only himself.

It’s a basic right of all workers to be safe in their workplace from fellow workers who show up with their minds impaired by drugs or alcohol.

We’re very grateful to Rep. Dennis Roch and Sen. Mark Moores for their determination and willingness to sponsor this legislation in 2013 and 2014. Support is building, and more people paid attention this year.

Too many New Mexico workers think it’s OK to use drugs or alcohol at work. This behavior must change. We hope you will join in this effort to make our workplaces safer for everyone.

Builders Trust is a self-insurance fund providing workers’ compensation for the construction industry since 1987.

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