In the summer of 1980, a trusted employe of Diamond Core Drilling Co. began to regularly disrupt the 16-worker shop in Brentwood. The man, an alcoholic in his late 20s who had a drug habit as well, created a problem that threatened to paralyze the small business, owner Paul J. Barrett recalled.

But through a program of detoxification, counseling and job performance monitoring devised by the Prince George's County health department, the man kicked his drinking problem and kept his job.

When Litton System's Amecom Division recently opened an employe assistance program for any of its 1,600 workers who wanted help with alcohol or other personal problems, two dozen people at the College Park plant promptly signed up for the confidential sessions.

Diamond Core and Amecom are worlds apart: one is a $1 million-a-year firm in the construction industry, the other a major defense contractor whose annual electronics sales will likely hit $100 million by next summer. Amecom's employe assistance program was two years in the making; Diamond Core's started when Paul Barrett agonized over firing a troubled worker.

But both cases illustrate how the treatment of alcoholism, the third leading health problem in the United States, has moved from private care centers or well-known groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous into the work place. Noontime seminars, company newsletters, peer counseling, performance reviews -- all are products of a growing belief among high-tech giants and small production shops alike that it makes sense to salvage the alcoholic worker.

Experts in the field say the number of such on-the-job rehabilitation efforts in suburban Maryland is rising.

"The way we deal with alcoholic employes is entirely different than what it was 40 years ago," when only a handful of large U.S corporations had alcoholism programs, said Bette Ann Weinstein, a Bethesda-based consultant. Her firm has established employe assistance plans in 25 private companies and government agencies in the Washington area, ranging from the Marriott Corp. to the Bureau of National Affairs publishing company and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

"There used to be a time when, because of the stigma associated with alcoholism, the way of dealing with an employe who drank was simply to fire him," Weinstein said. "That's not true any more."

Weinstein said her 5-year-old company, the Center for Occupational Programs for Employees, has doubled its clients in the past nine months. "We now know that alcoholism is a sickness, a disease, and that there are ways to treat it. A lot of employers are on the front line of helping these people," she said.

The Prince George's and Montgomery County school systems have offered similar alcoholism assistance programs to principals, teachers and support staff for the past several years. One Montgomery history teacher, an alcoholic who tried to commit suicide in the fall of 1977, said such a program helped her through the most difficult period of her life.

"Two or three recovered alcoholics would visit me in the hospital while I was recuperating" from an overdose of sleeping pills, said the woman, who taught school for 14 years before her breakdown. Depressed through most of 1977 and by then addicted to the tranquilizer Librium, she would have the first of her 10 daily drinks each morning before classes, the woman said.

"Alcoholism is still one of those closet illnesses that nobody'll admit having, especially in a profession like teaching where anything that aberrant could ruin you," she said. As part of the assistance program, the woman attended numerous Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and had frequent sessions with recovered alcoholics; she credited assistance program officials for working with school administrators to place her in a low-pressure job as a teacher's aide during her six-month recovery.

Despite her success, few teachers even know about the assistance program and many who do mistrust it, said the woman, who is teaching again in a county junior high school. "It's shameful that the people who need it most are the ones most likely to hide or fake it," she said.

According to some estimates, alcoholism is costing public and private employers as much as $40 billion annually in absenteeism, lost production, destroyed property and worker error. In the face of that staggering cost, many managers find that alcoholism programs make good business sense.

"The big push nowadays is towards the Japanese philosophy," said Harry Rieckelman, director of Prince George's Occupational Alcoholism Program. Rieckelman set up the alcoholism programs at Diamond Core and Amecom.

"The thinking is that if you're going to hold on to your good people, you have to offer them some intangible benefits -- like assistance programs. You'll lose a lot of good people if you fire them before giving them a chance to dry out and get back on the job."

"In my case," said Diamond Core's Barrett, "I didn't want to fire the guy because he had been with us several years. Why should I risk losing an individual who could possibly be a good worker? Why put somebody out onto the street? Alcoholism isn't a crime."

The worker who prompted the company's assistance program later left Diamond Core and returned home to the Midwest. Less than one year later, Barrett had to deal with another alcoholic employe, this time a 19-year-old.

"It took a long time to detect the problem with the first guy, but the second time around, we knew in the first few weeks he was there that he had a problem," Barrett said. He again called Rieckelman, who set up a strict schedule of counseling sessions for the youth. When the worker failed to participate, Barrett fired him.

Jim Harmon, the Amecom vice president who helped plan the College Park program, remembers the recently retired executive who said he wished he had had access to an assistance program during his climb up the corporate ladder. "Because of guys like that, we think this is an excellent thing to have," Harmon said.

Managers at Amecom have been trained to detect the early warning signals of alcoholic employes: "the frequent absences, the long lunch hours, not coming to work on Fridays or Mondays repeatedly," Harmon said. The assistance program costs employes nothing, and Harmon hopes to extend it to their families next year.

Not that problem drinking is limited to blue-collar workers. There may be a myth that drinking is a problem more prevalent among lower-paid workers, Rieckelman said, "but you'll find that managers -- the white-collar crowd -- drink just as much as the blue collars do. With white collars, the drinking may be more glorified, but the problems are just as bad."

Rieckelman's program, which he tailors for each firm, has met with some resistance from executives, he said. "Many of them wonder what the hell mental health is doing in the work place.

"It's a very 'New Wave' thing, very different from strict mental health because you have to consider the business as well as the employe," he said.

Typically, said Rieckelman, a manager or a fellow worker will notice a change in an employe's performance and refer him to the assistance program or, as in most cases, the worker will join the program on his own.

"If drinking is affecting how he does his job, then the first thing to do is to get him off alochol," which usually means a 28-day detoxification program in a local hospital, Rieckelman said. That should be followed with Alcoholics Anonymous sessions -- "the state of the art in this kind of treatment," Rieckelman said -- and the next step should be back-to-work interviews between worker and boss, he said.

"The manager should not get involved with whether his guy is attending the AA meetings or not. Again, his performance on the job is the key," Rieckelman added. "The beauty of the thing is that the supervisor has the leverage to help the alcoholic out by keeping an eye on how he does his job."