Don't Let Alcohol and Drugs Become an Issue

Posted in : HR Updates on 16 April 2012
Helen O'Brien
Personnel and Training Services
Issues covered:

Helen O'Brien writes:

Attitudes to drinking alcohol during working hours have changed completely over the last few years - it is now accepted that performance and judgement are likely to be impaired by alcohol consumption and could lead to accidents at work. There is also the longer-term health threat to employees caused by alcohol, writes Amy Paxton, Senior Employment Consultant at Croner.

Employers are also realising that there is a greater incidence of drug taking among employees. This may lead to misuse and damage the employee’s health, absenteeism and reduced productivity; it may also increase the risk of accidents.

Q. What’s the law on this?

Businesses have a general duty under the Health and Safety at Work (Northern Ireland) Order 1978 to ensure, as far as is reasonably practicable, the health, safety and welfare of employees. If the employer knowingly allows an employee under the influence of excess alcohol or drug-taking to continue working and this places the employee or others at risk, then he or she could be prosecuted. Similarly, employees are required to take reasonable care of themselves and others who could be affected by what they do. In the transport industry, there is additional legislation in place to control the misuse of alcohol and drugs. 

The Transport and Works Act 1992 makes it a criminal offence for certain workers to be unfit through drink and/or drugs while working on railways, tramways and other guided transport systems. The operators of the transport system would also be guilty of an offence, unless they had shown all due diligence in trying to prevent such an offence being committed. 

It is also an offence under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 for any person knowingly to permit the production, supply or use of controlled substances on their premises except in certain circumstances (e.g. when they have been prescribed by a doctor).

Q. What should an employer do if they think they have a problem?

Businesses should adopt an alcohol and substance misuse policy, in consultation with their staff. This policy should aim to support affected employees rather than punish them, though the policy must say that possession or dealing in drugs at work will be reported immediately to the police. If an employee admits to being a drug user, the policy should seek to help that person rather than lead simply to dismissing him or her.

The alcohol policy should include matters such as:

  • how the organisation expects employees to limit their drinking;
  • how problem drinking will be recognised and help offered; and
  • at what point, and in what circumstances it will treat an employee’s drinking as a matter for discipline, rather than as a health problem.

Q. What about drug screening?

Some employers have decided to adopt drug screening (or the right to search) as part of their drug policy. If an employer wants to do the same, he or she must think very carefully about the purpose of that screening, and what will be done with the information it generates. It is also important to consider the drug testing process itself including the type of testing, how the sample is collected and the security of the sample from contamination. The employer should seek professional advice and guidance on these matters. Similar issues arise if an employer wishes to adopt alcohol screening as part of their alcohol policy.

So, if you’re thinking about implementing an alcohol and drug policy, you should consider the following:

  • Find out if you have a problem. There should always be a good business reason for the introduction of a drugs and alcohol policy.
  • Where safety is an issue, the policy should make clear that the employer has zero tolerance of alcohol and drugs use.
  • Make a list of who you need to consult.
  • Decide how your company expects employees to limit their drinking, and consider how you can make sure that if an employee has a possible alcohol problem, this is noticed, and help is offered.
  • Decide when you will treat an employee’s drinking or drug taking as a matter for discipline rather than a health problem.
  • Set out in the policy the organisation’s procedures for dealing with these issues and provide this information to staff.

Management training

Line managers are more likely to spot any signs of substance abuse in their employees and play a vital role in implementing the organisation’s drugs and alcohol policy. Managers should be trained to recognise signs of substance abuse. Manager training should help them deal with problems that may arise as a result of the effects of drugs and alcohol on work performance. Training should include the following:

  • Recognising the signs of drug and alcohol abuse, and how to manage the issue in line with the organisation’s policy and arrangements
  • Services available to help employees, e.g. local advisory services and occupational health
  • Employee rehabilitation and return to work after treatment.
  • Employers can develop in-house training packages for managers to help them effectively manage substance abuse.
    Alternatively, they can engage external training providers to provide management staff with suitable drug and alcohol awareness training.
This article is correct at 10/11/2015

The information in this article is provided as part of Legal-Island's Employment Law Hub. We regret we are not able to respond to requests for specific legal or HR queries and recommend that professional advice is obtained before relying on information supplied anywhere within this article.

Helen O'Brien
Personnel and Training Services

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