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Stronger Drug Programs Needed

Revelations of Use at Sewage Plants a Sad Commentary

November 10, 1996

The announcement that more than 10% of the workers at two Orange County sewage treatment plants would be fired or otherwise disciplined for drug use was a disturbing commentary on today's workplace.

The Sanitation Districts of Orange County, which operate the Fountain Valley and Huntington Beach plants, hired a private security firm several months ago after receiving reports of drug use by employees. The investigators, including undercover operatives, told of discovering sales and use of methamphetamine, marijuana and cocaine as well as thefts of equipment and supplies by some employees.

The agency was right to investigate quickly and to discipline those using drugs. Officials said the drug use never jeopardized worker safety or caused environmental problems at the plants. But the potential for harm to workers and to the public was great. An employee on drugs is unlikely to display the same focus on the job at hand as one who is clearheaded.

The plants process 240 million gallons of sewage a day and dump treated waste water into the ocean. Before it is pumped into the sea, it must be tested to make sure it does not contain raw sewage and meets high standards for water quality. The ocean is an important part of our life in Southern California; protecting water quality is necessary.

Officials of the sewage district, which employs 600 workers, said about 30 workers would be fired and 60 others disciplined. They also said the revelations of drug use demonstrated the need for better drug programs and training. They are correct.

One official active in drug treatment said the best estimates are that 10% to 20% of the work force has a drug or alcohol problem that is likely to interfere with their performance on the job. Several months ago, a Washington policy research institute reported that three out of four drug abusers hold down steady jobs and most of those abusers work at small businesses unlikely to offer drug treatment in their health plans. A separate study two years ago found that treatment, even for addicts, was more effective than just locking people up.

Warnings against drug use have to be given from an early age. They also have to be continued throughout school years and into the workplace. Much attention properly is given to attempts to stop the flow of drugs into our country.

But drugs are here, and testing job applicants to be sure they are free of narcotics before they are hired does not stop some from using drugs after gaining employment. We need to be alert to drug abuse in the workplace and to push for treatment programs to help people before they become addicted and keep them sober on and off the job.

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