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What Executives Should Know about the NHLs’ Cocaine Problem

Recently, the NHL has confirmed that there has been cocaine usage amongst their players.

“I think there’s some usage. It’s not representative of an overwhelming number of our players. We’re in a dialogue with the Players’ Association to address it,” [NHL Commissioner Gary] Bettman said during the TV/radio appearance.[1]

This decision by the NHL to face this cocaine problem is a fantastic example of a pro-active employee safety measure. By engaging in dangerous narcotic activities, players are at a higher risk of injury. According to Athlete’s Recovery Program: “Prolonged cocaine abuse can cause a large number of negative health problems such as irregular heartbeat, respiratory problems, strokes, seizures, headaches, infections, bleeding in the brain, unpredictable behavior, and mood disturbances.”[2] Athletes at the most elite levels of professional sports are required to maintain peak fitness levels, a strict regimen of nutrition, exercise and mental stimulation.  Any extra undue stress on an athlete’s heart puts them at risk of injury.

While cocaine is an illegal narcotic, the NHL didn’t turn this discussion into a legal one.  Why? Because the NHL and NHLPA doesn’t care that it’s against the law, nor should they.  They aren’t the police, and they aren’t required by law to disclose to authorities their positive drug findings.  Their entire responsibility is to reduce the risk that players will be injured in the workplace.  In fact, Gary Bettman said: “My interest is not to go around punishing people. My interest is getting players to understand the consequences of doing something that could jeopardize this great, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that they’ve been given, to play in the NHL.” [1]

Evidently, the NHL realizes, like many other organizations who practice behavior based safety, that punishment is not the answer and would be an ineffective way to prevent this unsafe behavior and reduce the risk their players’ face. Rather than fining or preventing their players from playing, the NHL has chosen to try and change the players’ behavior through education and rehabilitation. No one, let alone an NHL player with the incredible opportunity to play professional hockey and get paid boat loads of cash to do so, wants to hurt themselves on the job.

By informing them about the dangers of cocaine use and providing proper rehabilitation support, the NHL is showing them how this unsafe behavior is increasing the likelihood of injury and encouraging safe behavior in a positive manner. This approach has also lead to other NHL players, such as Henrik Sedin[1], speaking out in favour of more testing for cocaine usage so other players who are using cocaine can get the education and support they need to stop. By taking a positive, proactive approach with a formal corrective process opposed to punishment, the NHL has created a positive safety culture where everyone from the executives to the players are working together to end the drug abuse and reduce workplace risk. The NHL should be commended on their approach and for making their players safety the top priority.

Now, some of you may be thinking: why would the NHL make player safety a top priority?

Well, there are a number of incentives for the NHL to regard player safety as its number one priority. Most importantly, the NHL has the moral obligation to care about player safety.  However, there are also significant economic incentives to invest in player safety.  Firstly, an injured player requires a costly replacement.  Like any workplace, if an employee is injured, their job doesn’t go away and the employer must pay to replace that employee with what is likely to be a less efficient one.  Secondly, if well-known players are absent from gameplay, NHL franchises may lose revenue resulting from lost ticket sales, merchandise sales and lucrative ad revenue.

This cold, economic view of player safety isn’t to make light of the personal toll that unsafe conditions can have on a player or his family, but rather to point out that ignoring workplace safety can have negative economic effects. On the other hand, a good safety culture and performance can have positive effects on a company’s income statement. Safety performance is becoming increasingly important in the prequalification process for major project bids and those companies with outstanding safety performance have a competitive advantage over their laggard peers.

One way executives can build a better safety culture and improve safety performance is by taking a page out of the NHL’s book, avoiding punishing unsafe behaviors and using a formal corrective action process instead. This helps you build positive safety culture and encourages everyone in your organization to participate in the program. A positive safety culture that engages everyone in the workforce tends to result in superior safety performance which can then be leveraged to win more bids and grow your business.

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