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New Year, new start – new drug and alcohol testing policy?

It's that time of year when many employers start to wonder whether it might be a good idea to put a drug and alcohol testing policy in place.

There are up to 17 million working days lost annually in the UK because of alcohol-related sickness, according to the Institute of Alcohol Studies. One in 12 adults under 60 have taken an illicit drug in the past year, say the Office of National Statistics.

Although there's no doubt that drug and alcohol testing policies are becoming more popular, the vast majority of employers don't yet have one.

Testing is legislated for in certain sectors including the aviation, rail and shipping industries. It is also deemed essential in the armed forces, police, prison service and for those working in public transport.

Yet other industries which could be considered 'high risk', like construction and agriculture, are not legally required to enforce testing.

While it's clear that not every business needs a drug and alcohol testing policy, how do you decide if yours would benefit from one? And what's the way forward if you do?

Responsibility

All employers have a general duty under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 to ensure the health, safety and welfare of employees by providing a safe working environment and safe working systems.

If an employer knowingly allows an employee under the influence of drugs or alcohol to continue working and their behaviour places that employee or others at risk, the employer could be prosecuted.

There's no doubt, alcohol in particular causes a lot of problems in the workplace. A study commissioned by Norwich Union Healthcare found that 77% of employers surveyed, identified alcohol as a major threat to employee wellbeing and a contributing factor to sickness absence. It also revealed:

  • A third of employees admitted coming to work with a hangover;
  • 15 per cent reported having been drunk at work;
  • One in ten said they had hangovers at work once a month with one in 20 confessing to one a week;
  • Work problems resulting from hangovers, or being drunk at work, included difficulty concentrating, reduced productivity, tiredness and mistakes.

Taking action

It is vital to set up any drug and alcohol policy correctly, as the implementation of such policies brings risk, especially when it comes to dismissing or disciplining staff for testing positive for drugs and alcohol.

If you believe there is a justifiable health and safety hazard, you need to look at how you can safely and effectively put a drug and alcohol testing policy in place. In doing so, it's important to ensure that:

  1. Any alcohol, drug, substance abuse policy forms part of your overall health and safety policy;
  2. Testing done once the policy is in place is justified, necessary and proportionate;
  3. You can provide evidence which backs up why you have introduced the policy. For example, accident records and near misses or conduct issues that could have led to an accident;
  4. Employees are made fully aware that testing is going to be introduced;
  5. It is clear exactly what blood alcohol/drug levels constitute a breach and what the consequences are;
  6. Training is provided for supervisors and managers and a confidentiality policy is in place to encourage people to come forward if they think a colleague has a problem.

For more information about this area of the law, or advice about introducing a drug and alcohol testing policy, please contact Wards Solicitors' Business Employment team or Julia Beasley directly.