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Safety as a conduit for solving addiction

Posted byWritten by David

In life and in business, errors disrupt potential and productivity. Errors can be the enemy of efficiency, especially if we do not learn from and eliminate them. 

Errors in life and the workplace can also result in injury and death. 

Humans are fallible and error prone. But, we can be very efficient and safe when we understand and apply good habit creation.

Addiction is essentially a deeply trained habit. It’s a compulsive act that continues despite negative feedback.

Most people never experience a full-blown addiction. However, many will experience some degree of compulsive alcohol or drug use during their lifetime. 

A prime example is the daily drink at the end of a long work day. For some, it may be one small drink. For others, it’s a couple glasses of wine to “wind down”. While not “alcoholic” behavior, it is very much textbook habitual behavior. 

Habits or habit loops consist of a queue, a routine, and a reward. 

Explore: Habit Change Flowchart (Charles Duhigg)

Here, the queue is the end of the work day. The routine is that it’s the end of the day and a glass of wine before dinner is the transition from work to home. The reward is the wine or the “relief” the wine provides. You worked hard, endured a stressful day. The wine alleviates the stress. 

Tomorrow, even if the day wasn’t stressful, you have the glass of wine anyways. Why? Because it’s what you do … it’s your habit. 

The problem sets in over time. The habit results in intoxication. Continued intoxication wears you down and increases fatigue; it impedes your judgement during both active intoxication and for many hours after. If your job has inherent increased risk of injury, you’ve now elevated the risk. 

Recently, the National Safety Council sought to broaden their definition of impairment. “Workplace impairment,” according to the NSC, is “anything that could impede one’s ability to function normally or safely as a result of a number of factors – from chemical substances, such as alcohol, opioids or cannabis, to physical factors like fatigue, as well as experiencing mental distress and social factors like stress.”

Read: Save Lives by Addressing Impairment

This definition of impairment applies to our daily lives outside the workplace too. Many of us get in cars, operate machinery around the house, etc. 

This idea of impairment as a means to solving addiction isn’t earth shattering. It is logical, though. 

A “conduit” is “a thing that acts as the channel for the transmission of something.” 

A solution for addiction is what’s being transmitted through impairment and safety policies, strategies, and habits. 

In workplace safety, the goal is zero injuries. 

Similarly, our goal should be zero instances of addiction. 

Which means a focus on prevention. But most in the addiction recovery space balk at preventative work. Most of their work is focused on unwinding the after affects of severe alcohol and drug use or addiction — what we amorphously call recovery. 

While noble and necessary, recovery-oriented work is dependent on people succumbing to significant alcohol and drug habits. It is necessary to help reverse course, but it is not a solution to the actual problem. 

Safety and impairment thinking just might be. 

As Charles Duhigg wrote in “The Power of Habit,” we can design keystone habits, usually small habits that create a cascading effect of other positive action.

Dive Deep: What are Keystone Habits? (James Clear) 

My keystone habit is my daily walk. It’s usually be 8:00 and 10:00 am. After the walk, I eat. When I began this habit many years ago, how and what I ate after the walk changed. I’d eat a little bit better and a little bit less. 

There’s a now legendary application of keystone habits in the business and safety world — the safety habits installed by Paul O’Neill upon becoming Alcoa CEO in the late 80’s. 

Improve safety to zero injuries, you reduce lost days of work and maintain efficiency and output. The result is a healthier workforce and a stronger company. That’s exactly what happened at Alcoa. 

Read: Have We Learned the Alcoa Keystone Habit Lesson? 

What I don’t know but would love the answer: what is the rate at which employees at Alcoa experience addiction? My guess is it is significantly less than the general population.

If we think about the elimination of addiction through the upstream focus on impairment and safety, I believe we will experience two seismic events beyond the workplace goal of zero injuries.

The first will be a 10-fold reduction in the rate of addiction, substance use disorder, or problem use. By creating new habits that improve safety and reduce impairment, addiction will have no place to plant roots. 

The second will be the external cascading effect of a safety/impairment mindset outside the workplace. Each employee will be practicing their anti-fatigue and other habits at home. Soon, their family and friends will pick up these habits. And so on. 


Many years ago, 2010, I think, I was asked to share my story to a South Dakota Department of Transportation committee meeting. It was quite the experience because it was the first time that the judge who sentenced me for my fifth and final DUI spoke together. Judge Trandahl gave the judicial view and I gave my view. It was very powerful. 

Skip ahead a decade later and the person who organized the 2010 meeting asked if I’d participate in an anti-impairment campaign. The campaign is sponsored by Diageo North America, developed by the United Nations Institute for Training and Research, and promoted by

The general idea was to use technology to educate people with real-life scenarios to help impact the decision-making process around driving impaired. 

The Wrong Side of Road initiative is innovative and human-centered. 

I am grateful to be part of the program. 

I am also really excited to join the leadership of Diageo,, UNITAR, and others at the National Press Club next week in Washington DC for the official launch of Wrong side of the Road. 

Please join the event in person or virtually on Nov. 2 at 9:30am EST.

Register to attend or watch:

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