Drugs and Alcohol in the Workplace

For employers dealing with any illness amongst their staff can be a difficult process to manage. Drug and alcohol abuse can be two issues that are particularly difficult to deal with for employers. It’s important to understand your responsibilities, in terms of Health and Safety legislation, when approaching these issues and also understanding how to deal with any drug or alcohol related matters sensitively and tactfully. The first, perhaps most important, aspect to understand is that substance misuse should be classed as an illness. Addiction to both drugs and alcohol is often a symptom of other issues but it has a physiological basis and this can be tackled with appropriate help.

The Legislation

Both types of substance abuse can cause poor productivity, absenteeism and can pose a risk of accidents that can affect the individuals concerned, their colleagues and the wider public. Certain industries hold specific risks; any driving related jobs, including public transport operations, can be affected if workers are unfit for their roles due to either alcohol or substance misuse. Several areas of legislation cover issues around substance misuse. The key primary legislation is the Health and Safety at Work Act (1974) and the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations (1999). Additional legislation in the form of the Road Traffic Act (1988) also applies to employers and employees who, as part of their role, are required to drive. Under the latter legislation employers are required to ensure that their workers are fit for the role and not under the influence of either drugs or alcohol.

Dealing with Alcohol Issues

Employers in any industry or sector should plan and implement an alcohol policy. The main aims of this policy should focus on how your company requires employees to manage their alcohol consumption and how to establish if a problem with alcohol is apparent. In addition, your policy needs to outline how problem drinking will be addressed and what help will be offered. Normally appropriate help will include referral to drug and alcohol counselling services. The policy should treat problem drinking as a health issue, but it may be necessary to ultimately manage the issue as a disciplinary matter. This should not be your first reaction, but your policy should establish at what point this may become appropriate.

Drug Use in the Workplace and the Law

Drug use is covered by the same legislation as alcohol misuse at work; however the Misuse of Drugs ACT 1971 is also relevant for employers. Unless drugs have been prescribed, it is an offence under this act for employers to allow the use of drugs (or the production of them) on their premises. The Road Traffic Act also applies, and no person under the influence of illegal drugs must be allowed to drive professionally. Some prescribed medication can also affect the ability to drive and/or operate machinery and it is the employer’s responsibility to manage any associated risks. Again, a clear policy should be adopted in relation to drug misuse. This should focus on help rather than punishment or dismissal (as with alcohol related issues). It is important that workers are aware of both policies and, in the case of drug management policies, it should be made clear that possession or dealing of drugs while at work will be reported to the police.

Screening Policies

Drug and Alcohol testing or screening is often used by employers and may be particularly relevant for employees who are expected to drive as part of their role. If you choose to adopt a screening policy there are several factors that you will need to consider. Screening can help to manage risks but the information collected can be sensitive and careful planning of how to handle, store or dispose of any data (including who has access to the records) must be made.