Employers typically discourage employees from consuming drugs or alcohol while at work or within a time frame where the substances could affect their performance. Unfortunately, people still work while intoxicated. In fact, OSHA found that people tested positive for drugs and alcohol in 10 to 20 percent of workplace deaths. However, the question that many employees want answered is whether testing positive these substances could prevent them from collecting workers' compensation benefits. The answer is it depends on a couple of factors.
What Does the Law Say?
The rules for workers' compensation eligibility is created by the state, so the law will be the primary determination of whether or not a person who tests positive for intoxicating substances will be able to receive benefits.
In general, most states take a no-fault approach to workers' compensation; the employee will receive compensation regardless of whether or not the individual did anything to contribute to the accident. In exchange, the workers' compensation insurance is the exclusive remedy to the injury; the employee cannot file a personal injury lawsuit against the employer.
However, some states do list intoxication as an exception to the no-fault rule. For example, in Texas, your injury will not be covered if it stemmed from being intoxicated by drugs or alcohol. So if you accidentally shoot a nail into your foot with a nail gun because you were too drunk to control your movements, then your injuries would not be covered by workers' compensation insurance in the state.
Additionally, you may be denied coverage in some states if you willfully violate the company's safety policy. For instance, if your company expressly prohibits being under the influence of an intoxicating substance while at work and you test positive for drugs or alcohol after an accident, you could be denied benefits even if the accident had nothing to do with your intoxication.
How Much of an Impact the Intoxication Had on the Accident?
How much the person's intoxication contributed to the accident may also mean the difference between an approval and a denial. As mentioned previously, many states have provisions that state accidents that are caused by the employee's intoxication will be denied.
At the other end of the spectrum, though, an employee may still receive benefits if they can prove drugs or alcohol had no impact on the accident. For instance, one employee trips and accidentally pushes over a ladder another employee was standing on. The employee on the ladder would still receive benefits even if he or she tested positive for intoxicating substances because how high or drunk the individual was had no bearing on the cause of the accident.
Things to Consider
However, real life is rarely clean and neat. First, eligibility for compensation may hinge on a particular judge's interpretation of workers' compensation laws and rules. For example, an Oklahoma man was denied benefits after he was injured on the job while trying to restrain an inmate a juvenile detention center. The man had tested positive for marijuana, and the judge ruled against him based on a new law enacted by the state that said no worker who tested positive for drugs or alcohol could receive benefits.
The case was appealed to the Supreme Court of Oklahoma who determined the lower court judge had taken one sentence of the law out of context. The entire section of the law stated employees would not be eligible if the intoxication was a major cause of the accidents. In the man's case, the court ruled there was no evidence the marijuana in the man's system contributed to the incident and overturned the ruling.
Second, it may be difficult for the state to prove the person was impaired and that the individual's impairment was the proximate cause of the accident. Drug tests can only show the person had the substance in his or her system. While experts can derive certain conclusions from the information gleaned from those tests, the tests can't prove conclusively the person was impaired. For example, it's possible for chronic heavy drinkers to blow a .08 on breathalyzer tests and show no signs of impairment because they have higher levels of tolerance than people who only drink socially.
At the end of the day, if you suspect you will test positive for drugs or alcohol after you're involved in a workplace accident, it's best to consult with an firms like Prediletto, Halpin, Scharnikow & Nelson, P.S. that can advise you on the best way to proceed to ensure you remain eligible for workers' compensation benefits.