Drug & Alcohol Screening in The UK

Drugs & Alcohol in The Workplace

Posted By Kerry Budworth on 2015-10-10 09:42

What You Need To Know, & What You Can Do

Drugs and alcohol in the workplace is a major concern for employers, recently with changes in road side testing it has really come to the fore of everyone's mind. Employees under the influence are a danger to themselves and other employees. Depending on their employment role, they can also be a danger to the general public. So what do you need to know and what can be done to tackle the issue of substance abuse in the workplace.

Employer & Employee Duties

There is a duty on the employee to turn up for work fit for duty, however, there is also a duty on employers to ensure a safe workplace, where risks to workers and others who may be affected are properly managed. Managing the risks in relation to alcohol and drugs is potentially difficult, it is also a sensitive matter. As an employer, how are you to manage?

In order that medical professionals have clear guidance in this area, in 2014 the British Medical Association (BMA) published guidance. This guidance document aims to provide practical advice to medical professionals to help them understand and support working patients and employers to address the use of alcohol and illicit drugs in people who work. The guidance document provides an excellent overview of all of the issues involved. As an employer it would be useful read.

What is the scale of the problem

The Office for National Statistics estimates that 26% of men and 17% of women in the United Kingdom drink enough to put themselves physically and psychologically at risk.In fact illicit drugs are less of a problem than alcohol, when you look at numbers of users. Studies suggest that the use of illicit drugs has in fact declined since 2003/2004. It was believed that 12% of the population used some form of illicit drug in 2003/4. In 2011/2012 it was believed that this figure had declined to 8.9%. 

Workers at risk

The same 2011 study also concluded that men and women in employment were in fact more likely to consume alcohol than unemployed or economically inactive individuals. In simple terms, the study found that those earning more consumed more and drank more frequently than those in ‘routine’ or manual occupations. Interestingly though, the study found that death rates associated with alcohol appear higher for those in more routine jobs.

Men doing un-skilled jobs were 3.5 times more likely to die from alcohol-related disease than professionals. For women, the risk was even greater, women undertaking un-skilled or manual jobs were 5.7 times more likely to die from an alcohol-related disease. 

It is believed that the factors contributing to increased use of alcohol or drugs in the workplace include:

  • availability (eg. those working in the drinks industry are at higher risk of alcohol-related deaths)
  • work pressures
  • peer group pressure
  • co-worker collusion
  • lack of supervision
  • financial hardship
  • financial independence
  • physical danger
  • having to interface with a hostile, aggressive or demanding general public

There are certain situations and working conditions that are associated with alcohol and drug use, they include:

  • shift or night work
  • travel away from home
  • working remotely
  • business meals
  • poor communications
  • job stress
  • longer working hours

In relation to the use of  illicit drugs, literary, artistic professions and the construction industry are the occupations which show the highest dependence and risk of poisoning.

A particularly worrying fact that the survey data revealed was that significant levels of workers admitting to being under the influence of alcohol in the workplace. In one survey, a 33% of those interviewed admitted to attending work with a hangover. Perhaps not surprising, but strikingly, 15% confessed to being drunk at work. 

Direct effects

Alcohol and drug use have direct effects on the health of the employee and the health of the business. In real terms alcohol impairs balance, co-ordination, perception, reaction time and reasoning. In the workplace these effects make driving and machine operation dangerous. An employee who has a hangover can in fact be as much of a risk as one who has imbibed alcohol in low levels.

Levels of alcohol in the blood stream below the legal limit have been shown to impair driving and concentration. On a general health front alcohol can cause a litany of horrifying side effects including dependence, liver cirrhosis, alcoholic psychosis, alcoholic cardiomyopathy, polyneuropathy and gastritis.

Alcohol consumption also poses a threat to the organisation. It is estimated that absenteeism caused by alcohol cost employers £1.7 billion. Not just that, workers with alcohol problems can put businesses at risk when they are at work. Unfortunately, there is no accurate data for the numbers of workplace accidents linked to alcohol consumption. However, we all know that while we are drunk, we are more likely to make mistakes and errors of judgement.

How do you deal with an employee with a possible alcohol problem

This is an exceptionally sensitive manner and it needs to be dealt with correctly or you may leave the business open to litigation and employment disputes. Unfortunately in this matter, employers are caught between the fabled rock and a hard place. Again, as we all know, it is the employer's responsibility to ensure a safe workplace. 

However, you still need to realise that any employee with a drink problem has rights to both confidentiality and support. Alcoholism in particular is recognised as a medical condition. If you do suspect an employee has an alcohol problem, there are recognised steps you can take to try and resolve the issue. The HSE offers the following advice to bear in mind:

  • Employees with a drink problem have the same rights to confidentiality and support as they would if they had any other medical or psychological condition.
  • Disciplinary action should be a last resort. A court may find a dismissal unfair if an employer has made no attempt to help an employee whose work problems are related to drinking alcohol.
  • The cost of recruiting and training a replacement may be greater than the cost of allowing someone time off to obtain expert help.
  • Many people with an alcohol problem are able in time to regain full control over their drinking and return to their previous work performance.
  • It may be very difficult for people to admit to themselves or others that their drinking is out of control. They need to know that you will treat their drinking problem as a health problem rather than an immediate cause for dismissal or disciplinary action.
  • If employees’ drinking is a matter of concern, they should be encouraged to seek help from their GP or a specialist alcohol agency.

As you can see from this article and others that we have posted in relation to drug and alcohol in the workplace, this is not a clear cut matter. While steps need to be taken to protect yourself, your company and your employees, you need to be aware of all the ramifications. If you have any questions about drug and alcohol testing in the workplace, or its' implementation as part of your wider health and safety strategy, call us on 01455 234 600 or contact us online. 

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