Last reviewed 10 December 2019
’Tis the season of good cheer ending in the start of a new year, which some of us look forward to and others dread. Either way, it is worth reviewing your organisation’s procedures for dealing with alcohol misuse, writes Jon Herbert.
Attitudes have changed considerably in recent times, with zero tolerance for drink-driving and more awareness of the impacts of alcohol consumption. It is important to remember that being jolly does not mean the same thing for everyone.
As the season of merriment, office parties, work bashes and one-for-the-road gets into full swing, not everyone can manage their alcohol intake. Some know they cannot have even one drink, while others perhaps don’t know that they have a problem. Organisations must have policies and procedures in place to deal with and support those whose alcohol consumption affects them during working hours.
Under the Health and Safety at Work, etc Act 1974, employers have a duty to ensure the health, safety and welfare of employees. This means they have the same responsibilities towards alcohol use as any other potential health and safety risk in, and connected to, the workplace. As such, employers should make appropriate provisions to ensure that persons known to misuse substances do not affect the safety of themselves or others while at work. See the Drugs and Alcohol topic for detailed information.
How to develop your alcohol policy
Developing an appropriate company policy that applies to alcohol use is a structured process. This should include:
consulting with employees
a careful assessment of safety-critical work that could be affected by misuse
deciding if there are any cases that justify a screening and testing system, and crucially
how to provide discreet support for employees who have an alcohol problem and request help.
Consulting with employees
As with other health and safety issues, employers should consult with employees or their representatives, not only to give out information but also to listen to staff members — who may have different and new perspectives on an issue.
Assessing safety-critical work
Again, as with all other health and safety aspects, a bespoke risk assessment for the business’s circumstances is essential. This should look carefully at the impacts of alcohol misuse on specific operations such as machinery use, work with electrical equipment, working at height or ladders, driving and operating heavy equipment.
Screening for alcohol use
The aims of any screening and testing should be thought out clearly and should only apply to the section of the workforce to who it is directly relevant. Employees’ consent is needed and samples must be handled proficiently with no risk of contamination, mislabelling or erroneous recording. Medical confidentiality should be ensured.
Wherever possible, an employee who admits to misusing alcohol should be helped and supported rather than dismissed. Confidentiality is important but involving GPs or in-company occupational health services should be encouraged. Note, however, that misuse is not the same as dependency, which may require medical support outside the scope of most organisations.
To protect other workers, visitors and members of the public, it should also be made clear where disciplinary or other action will be taken. The procedures should be clear and communicated to staff — and followed when they apply.
A reasonable and responsible reaction where staff working in safety-critical roles request help for alcohol-related problems might be to transfer them, at least temporarily, to other work.
Avoiding alcohol at work events
Suggest to the employee in question that it is important to tell colleagues that they will be drinking less from the outset, if the culture is one of pressuring workmates into a drink. Telling people clearly that they are not going to drink is easier done when sober. Buddying up with others who are not drinking can be supportive.
Another strategy is to minimise the temptation time by instituting an escape plan: booking an early taxi for example. Leaving an event early will not be noticed. Similarly, make it clear to employees with a problem that it’s acceptable to decline invitations, and perhaps consider a different “treat” for that employee.