Substance Use in High-Risk Industries

Updated on 10/12/23

US companies lose billions of dollars each year as a result of substance use. Negative effects manifest as lost productivity, accidents, on-the-job injuries, illnesses and increased absenteeism. Although substance use can be found across all industries, some have higher rates than others. Other industries have a lower percentage of workers with substance use problems, but they are safety-sensitive positions. In these cases, impaired employees can endanger the safety of the public.

Certain industries have higher rates of substance use than others.

Substance use is not consistent across industries. In the same report, data from 2008 to 2012 shows an annual average of 8.7% of full-time employees aged 18-64 used alcohol heavily in the past month and 9.5% were dependent on alcohol or illicit drugs. In the past month, 8.6% of full-time employees used illicit drugs.

Industries with the highest percentages of heavy alcohol use among adults aged 18-64 were:

  • Mining
  • Construction
  • Arts, entertainment and recreation
  • Utilities
  • Wholesale trade

Industries with the highest percentages of illicit drug use among adults aged 18-64 using were:

  • Accommodation and food service
  • Arts, entertainment and recreation
  • Management
  • Information
  • Construction

Some jobs may cause injuries and pain leading to misuse of prescription medications, which can lead to illicit drug use in the form of heroin. Others require long hours and workers may turn to stimulant use to stay awake and alert. People with high-stress jobs may use drugs and alcohol to cope with constant on-the-job stress. In the case of the arts, entertainment, recreation, accommodation and restaurant industries, alcohol and drugs are readily available. These industries are also social in nature, and often socializing and substance use go hand in hand.

The report also shows that males have higher substance use rates than females while adults aged 18-25 have higher rates of use than older adults. Male-dominated or youth-dominated industries sometimes have higher rates of use overall, but it is not always the case once age and gender are controlled.

The stresses of military life and deployment can increase the risks of substance use disorders (SUD).

There is an association between deployment and drug use, smoking and excessive drinking. Active-duty personnel and veterans who have experienced trauma or were injured during combat are at risk for drinking or drug use. However, illicit drug use among active-duty personnel is relatively low.

Veterans undergo a period of adjustment as they reintegrate into civilian life, which brings unique mental health challenges and an increased risk of SUDs. Almost 11%of veterans presenting for first-time care within the VHA system met the criteria for a SUD diagnosis. Those with SUDs commonly meet the criteria for co-occurring mental health disorders PTSD, depression and anxiety.

Some high-stress professions rank lower in rates of substance use, but substance use by people working in those jobs can endanger lives.

The airline industry, part of the larger transportation industry, has a relatively low rate of substance use (5.9% for illicit drug use and 8.8% for heavy alcohol use). Workers in the airline industry, especially pilots and air traffic controllers, are in extreme safety-sensitive positions. Being impaired on the job can endanger lives. Pilots and air traffic controllers are responsible for the safety of hundreds of people daily. Mistakes on the part of pilots and air traffic controllers can lead to horrible casualties. Pilots and air traffic controllers may turn to drugs and alcohol as a way to relax or find a respite from the stresses of their jobs. They may turn to stimulants to help them stay awake for long periods. Other airline personnel are also subject to high levels of on-the-job stress that can lead to substance use. This is especially true with the added stresses related to COVID-19, including fear of catching the virus and unruly passengers angry about wearing masks and other protocols.

First responders have high-stress jobs where lives are constantly on the line.

Hospital staff, paramedics, police officers and firefighters, and other first responders are responsible for the health and safety of other people and are often exposed to abuse and violence. Conditions are becoming more extreme as the pandemic continues. These factors put first responders at increased risk of substance use. These jobs require quick decision-making, focus and critical thinking. When a doctor, police officer, or firefighter is impaired, they are unable to think critically. Response time can be slowed and decision-making can be impaired. This can endanger the lives of the people these professionals are responsible for.

Regardless of the industry, substance use can be a problem. Treatment is available and there are more options available now than ever before.

No matter what your job is, substance use can negatively impact your work performance and even endanger lives. You do not have to wait until your job or life is negatively impacted to seek treatment. We have programs for professional athletes, airline personnel, active duty military and veterans, and anyone from any other profession seeking help. You will receive the best evidence-based treatment combined with holistic treatment modalities at Casa Palmera’s beautiful Del Mar, California, location. Call us at (855) 508-0473 to learn more. 


This blog is for informational purposes only and should not be a substitute for medical advice. We understand that everyone’s situation is unique, and this content is to provide an overall understanding of substance use disorders. These disorders are very complex, and this post does not take into account the unique circumstances for every individual. For specific questions about your health needs or that of a loved one, seek the help of a healthcare professional.