Quietly, almost unnoticed in the midst of recent scare headlines, it appears that American industry is beginning to make significant progress against an insidious internal problem: employee use of drugs, including alcohol.
The progress comes on two fronts: efforts by management to root out drugs, and growing insistence by nonuser employees that this be done.
Drug experts emphasize that no national statistics are yet available to substantiate this progress. But they find evidence in their individual dealings with firms in various parts of the nation, and in their secondary contacts with consultants to various com-panies.
No reliable statistics exist on the national scope of use of drugs in the American workplace, nor on the resultant dollar cost to industry. Figures that are quoted, says one source in a view expressed by many, ''are based on a very small number of people,'' and then are ''projected to the universe'' - with a dollar figure tacked on.
Far more reliable are the experiences of individual firms, such as the recent testing of prospective employees for drug use that a large national transportation firm did: 38 percent registered as having used drugs recently.
Certainly drug use is a major problem for American firms: very nearly out of control, everyone agrees.
The most abused drug - the one that harms productivity most - is an old one: alcohol. A second serious problem is with the impairment of employees by legal drugs prescribed by physicians. Other extremely serious problems stem primarily from two illegal substances: marijuana and cocaine.
In the late 1970s many large American firms instituted programs to help their employees who abused alcohol, on the grounds it was both the most compassionate approach and the cheapest. For years most companies denied that there was a problem with other drugs among employees. But the increasing use of illegal drugs in the early 1980s caused them to try to deal with this problem, and development a year and a half ago of improved detection tests for drug use helped.
Since then many large firms have vigorously begun trying to identify and help - or, if necessary, fire - employees who use drugs. Many have large drug assistance programs, which however continue to be hampered by employee concern about being publicly identified as drug users. Aided by the new test, and others soon to come, these firms are trying to identify drug users among their employees at an earlier stage, and with increasing success. ''I believe that industry is going to take a very hard line,'' says one government analyst, adding that in a few years ''you may have to be drug free to hold on to your job.''
Helping management in this work is the courage that those who do not use drugs now are beginning to find to insist that abuse no longer be tolerated. ''I believe it is a minority'' that abuses drugs, says one expert. ''And I believe that the silent majority out there is going to start leaning on the management to start cracking down'' on drug abusers; he's received considerable evidence from middle-level people in several firms that this is beginning to happen.
Industry is starting to take another step, guided by reformed users: changing the conditions that exist in some jobs which have encouraged employees to seek an escape through drugs. Changes include providing more frequent and visible supervision, ending the isolation of some work locations, and tackling the problem of boredom on the job.
These are welcome trends. Clearly drug abuse is an enormous problem throughout American society. It is heartening to see that behind the clamor which so graphically describes the seriousness of the problem, segments of American society - drug specialists, industry, nonusers - are beginning to pull together to work toward its solution.