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Use of benzodiazepines in the workplace

Benzodiazepines are often used by workers to manage stress and anxiety at work. 

A legally prescribed drug, benzodiazepines have a sedative effect, which could affect a worker’s ability to work safely and effectively.

In this article, we provide you with an overview of benzodiazepines, their effects, the impact of benzodiazepines in the workplace, and how to manage benzodiazepine use and abuse at work.

What are benzodiazepines?

Benzodiazepines (or benzos) are depressant drugs that slow down central nervous system activity. 

Belonging to a class of psychoactive drugs, benzodiazepines possess properties that sedate, hypnotize, and relax the user.

Also known as minor tranquillizers, these drugs are the most common drugs used to relieve stress, reduce anxiety, and induce sleep.

They have a legitimate role in dealing with insomnia in the short term, treating alcohol withdrawal among alcoholics and acting as a potent anti-seizure agent, and form the basis of therapy for panic attacks and generalised anxiety disorders. They can also be used by drug users to decrease the effects of stimulants such as cocaine and amphetamines.

In Australia, people use benzodiazepines for medicinal and recreational purposes. One in 20 Australians are prescribed benzodiazepines.

Benzodiazepines are the second-most common drug involved in an accidental overdose death. Plus, they are potentially addictive if overused for long periods.

Taking a closer look at benzodiazepines

An anti-anxiety medication, benzodiazepines are more popularly known by their generic or brand names. Some common benzodiazepines include:

  • Diazepam (Ducene® and Valium®)
  • Oxazepam (Alepam®, Murelax®, and Serepax®)
  • Nitrazepam (Alodorm® and Mogadon®)
  • Temazepam ( Euhypnos® and Normison®)
  • Alprazolam (Xanax®)

These drugs often come in a tablet or capsule, making them easy to swallow. 

Effects of benzodiazepines on the body

The most common effects of benzodiazepines include weakness, sedation, dizziness, and unsteadiness. Some people also feel a sense of depression, loss of orientation, headache, and sleep disturbance. 

These signs and symptoms are usually felt within an hour of the consumption and can last from 2.5 to 160 hours depending on the dosage taken in and the type of drug consumed. 

There are three basic types of benzo:

  1. short-acting (like Temazepam and Alprazolam) whose effects last under 6 to 8 hours,
  2. intermediate-acting benzos (like Nitrazepam) whose effects last up to 16 to 24 hours, and 
  3. long-acting benzos (like Diazepam) whose effects can last up to a week.

When taken frequently and in higher dosages, benzodiazepines can provide the following long-term effects: memory loss, difficulty in thinking and concentration, lack of motivation, lethargy, hangover (fatigue), headaches and drowsiness. Some users experience nausea, anxiety, changes in physical and emotional responses, irritability, aggression, and paranoia.

The impact of benzodiazepines at work

To maximise productivity at work, an employee needs to be strong, sharp, and alert. However, these things are compromised when someone uses benzodiazepines. 

The use of benzodiazepines at work becomes even more dangerous when the employee operates heavy machinery or drives vehicles for the company. The employee could cause a workplace accident that could result in injury or death. 

There could also be financial and legal ramifications for the business. 

Signs of benzodiazepines abuse

A person who abuses benzodiazepines may display the following signs and symptoms:

  • Drowsiness/fatigue
  • Inability to concentrate
  • Slurred speech
  • Poor coordination and unsteady gait
  • Hostility and irritability
  • Impaired judgment, including lack of awareness or lack of concern about workplace dangers, even in risky situations
  • Blurred vision
  • Reduced inhibition
  • Amnesia (including retrograde and anterograde amnesia – so they may forget recent instructions as well as older information).

What to do about benzodiazepines at work

Benzodiazepines are widely prescribed by doctors because they are legal and because they help alleviate the symptoms of medical conditions such as anxiety and epilepsy. 

Benzodiazepine usage in Australia is high, with moderately high levels of regular workplace usage reported among socially isolated, young male and FIFO workers in manufacturing and mining, as well as isolated professional postings.

Benzodiazepines are by far the most common legally-prescribed drug associated with workplace accidents worldwide, including in Australia.

Workers who use them are not required to disclose that they have a prescription for, say, Valium or any other legal prescription drug, unless it is so stipulated in their employment contract.

Employers do, however, have the right to promote a safe and healthy workplace. 

To find the right balance, it is necessary for businesses to develop and implement a drug and alcohol policy and procedure for the workplace. 

For the policy to be effective, it must contain provisions for a drug and alcohol awareness and education program and drug and alcohol testing regimens.

Benzodiazepines testing

All major drug tests are designed to detect benzodiazepines. The most common testing methods are:

  • Urine drug testing – The most common method of testing for benzodiazepines, the detection window of this class of drugs roughly equals the period of impairment caused by the drug. It is, however, regarded by some as an invasive way of testing.
  • Oral fluid drug testing – While many benzodiazepines can be tested for by oral fluid assays, benzodiazepines are not actively secreted into the oral fluid (saliva) so these oral fluid assays are relatively insensitive and have a truncated detection window shorter than the impairment window of the drug.
  • Hair follicle drug testing – The most expensive testing method, hair testing is better at detecting benzodiazepine use over a longer period of time. It can detect benzodiazepine use from 10 to 14 days after use up to 90 days or more (depending on the length of the hair). 

Learn more

Safework Health can help you keep your workplace safe from drugs and alcohol. Contact us today for a confidential discussion.


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