Line work is ranked as one of America’s most hazardous occupations, and utilities are investing in the latest technology and providing training to keep their workers safe in the field. Even so, employees can face another challenge that can put their lives and livelihood at risk: substance abuse and addiction.
Case in point: Seventy-seven percent of individuals with substance abuse issues are employed, according to George Washington University. These workers are three-and-a-half times more likely to be involved in a workplace accident.
While some companies might penalize employees who struggle drug and alcohol addiction, the Los Angeles Department of Water & Power (LADWP) is taking a more supportive approach. LADWP collaborated with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) Local 18 to launch the Peer Volunteer Program. This program provides assistance, resources and support for employees and their families.
Creating a Support Network
Mark Vanvakaris, a Peer Volunteer Program manager who recently retired as a safety administrator from the Joint Safety Institute, says before launching the outreach program at LADWP, the company reached out to other utilities to learn more about existing initiatives. For example, LADWP modeled its program after one started by Pacific Gas & Electric and IBEW Local 1245.
Through the Peer Volunteer Program, LADWP employees offer 24/7 confidential guidance to their fellow workers or their family members. While they are not licensed medical professionals, the Peer Volunteers have access to a counselor/certified mental health and addiction specialist. LADWP’s employees must self-refer themselves to the program.
“It’s a humanitarian effort to provide outreach and help people,” says Vanvakaris at the Transmission Distribution Maintenance Management Association conference in Chattanooga, Tennessee.
Giving Confidential Support
To qualify for the program, the Peer Volunteers must be in long-term recovery for a minimum of two years, be active in Al-Anon for at least two years and complete training by the Employee Assistance Program and have access to mental health professionals. Vanvakaris says when LADWP and IBEW put out the call for volunteers for peer counselors, they had no problem filling the ranks.
“There’s a network of people who have recovered,” he says. “That’s the power of the program: whatever position you are in, there is a peer who has been through the struggle. They can talk to someone who has been there.”
Unlike in other utility substance abuse programs nationwide, the Peer Volunteer Program is 100 percent confidential, he says.
“No one else knows about it but the staff member, and they won’t be reported or turned in,” Vanvakaris says. “Anytime someone reaches out, we have to get their permission to give them help.”
By enrolling in the program, the employees can talk to trusted coworkers about how to get help for alcohol or substance abuse as well as how to deal with a loved one’s addiction.
To get the employees the help they need, the Peer Volunteers can provide them with referrals to treatment programs covered by the employee health plans. The program, which is funded through the Joint Safety Institute, is free to all employees and their dependents and is based on self-referrals.
Last year, the Peer Volunteer Program had 24 peers. As employees retire, others rotate through the program. The peers are responsible for working with the employees to continue to help them to recover.
“They must keep contact, take them to meetings and pay it forward for what has been done to help them,” Vanvakaris says. “In just 18 months, we had 100 employees reach out to the peers, and 30 have gone into some kind of program. In the future, I think it will continue to grow and become a program that even more people will take advantage of.”