We all know alcohol is a drug. However, it is a drug that is considered acceptable to consume within reason. The question is, what quantity is reasonable in and around the workplace?
Are there safe levels of alcohol at work? If so, what are they and how do you ensure your employees adhere to them?
Australian Statistics and a Real-life Example
Back in 2011 a nationwide study of drug and alcohol use discovered that nearly 10 percent of people regularly consumed alcohol while at work.
The Australian Drug Foundation website says that in recent times 5 percent of workers have admitted to working under the influence of alcohol. In addition, one in 10 said they usually drink alcohol at work.
Drug-Safe Workplaces founder Michael White recalls how he was invited to the head office of a demolition company. The aim was to meet with their workers and to explain what a drug-safe (which includes alcohol) workplace looked like.
While he stood at the front delivering his presentation the work crews were sitting back drinking cans of beer!
Obviously, drinking alcohol at work was a definite part of that company’s culture. It was of concern when you consider that these work crews operated cranes, bulldozers, large trucks and tippers on high risk sites with buildings been pulled down.
The Impact of Alcohol on Your Workplace
For every 10 serious workplace accidents on work sites across Australia eight of them were caused by people impacted by alcohol or drugs. Or both.
Tragically, in most cases, the people who were injured were “innocent”. They themselves had not consumed alcohol or drugs.
Are there any dangers in allowing workers to have a drink (or two) at work? During their lunch break. Shift change. At the end of the day before they head home?
According to the Alcohol and Drug Foundation (ADF) there are numerous reasons why having alcohol in the workplace is not wise, including:
- Compromising workplace safety
- Impacting productivity and worker performance
- Affecting relationships between employees
- Impairing concentration
- Reducing coordination – and therefore opening up to a much greater likelihood of equipment, vehicles or products being damaged
- Impairing decision making
- Slowing down reaction times
The Foundation states that it is not just heavy drinkers or problem drinkers who are capable of causing loss, damage or a drop in safety and morale. Those who are moderate drinkers but happen to consume more than usual whilst on the work site might be at the highest risk of an adverse workplace event.
Alcohol at Work – Your Responsibilities
How should employers respond to the topic of safe levels of alcohol at work?
Employers must ensure – by law – the health and welfare of their employees. This includes:
- A safe workplace free of risk to health
- Safe systems and procedures
- Processes for identifying potential hazards and risks
- Regular reviewing of risk control measures
The Occupational Health and Safety Act states that ultimate responsibility for providing a safe workplace rests with the employer (refer to SafeWork NSW).
Duty of care extends to “taking all reasonable steps to ensure the health and safety of all employees and any other people who may be affected by the operations of the workplace”. Which means that they have to protect contractors, suppliers, visitors, customers, courier drivers, etc. – anyone interacting with personnel – as well as their own team.
Employees are to be pro-active as well. The ADF advises that workers are to take reasonable care for their own health and safety…and those alongside them.
Identifying On The Job Drinking
It can be a challenge for employers and their employees to identify consumption of alcohol in the workplace – and outside the workplace but having a direct impact on participation at work (eg. the Monday sickie to cover a weekend ‘bender’).
Indeed, the Drug-Safe Workplaces team has visited numerous work sites at which business owners and management have stated that none of their people are impacted by alcohol. Simply because they don’t know what to look for.
We know that people who are aware of their ‘condition’ will work extra-hard in order to mask or disguise their habit.
Obvious indicators that a person is affected by alcohol at work include:
- Near miss incidents
- Damaging equipment or property
- Poor concentration
- Inefficiency in their duties
- Habitual lateness
- Neglect of personal grooming
- Interpersonal problems
- Violence (anger, bullying)
- Frequent absence (after weekends and public holidays)
In some cases – under the banner of teamwork and “sticking up for your mate” – there will be situations in which workers are fully aware that a colleague is “having a bad day” after alcohol consumption and they feel obligated to cover for that person’s poor or unsafe performance.
No Safe Levels of Alcohol at Work
In our experience there are no safe levels of alcohol consumption at work apart from zero.
The issue with having anything other than a zero policy is that workers will often drink before work or have a big long drink the night before. Your employees will make judgements about what they are likely to be by the time they reach work. It also brings about animosity among workers onsite.
We had a situation where office workers were allowed to be .050. Certain workers and drivers were allowed .020. Finally commercial drivers and DG goods driver had to be .000.
If a worker is on an afternoon or night shift and is able to drink up until it is time to start work providing they stay below the .050 limit then the fatigue factor kicks in later in the evening. In addition it provides a reasonable fall back argument for a worker who has a limit of .020 for instance as they can then contend that they tested themselves and they were below the limit so there must be something wrong with your breathalyser.
There are variations between breathalysers and when you are working with fine tolerances you open up all sorts of debate.
Therefore, if you allow a tolerance as an employer you are confirming it is okay to have a drink. This may be before work or perhaps even during working hours providing you stay below your designated limit.
We believe it is dangerous to recommend different levels for different work groups. The days of business lunches with drinks are long gone! For work everyone should be zero.
How to Confront an Employee Drinking Alcohol
It is one thing to look for alcohol-impaired workers at your office or work site. It is another to know how to professionally confront the issue and the person involved.
Approaching a person who may be under the influence of alcohol requires skill and sensitivity. For example, it depends on factors such as:
- the culture of your workplace
- the position (business title, responsibility) of your employee
- their personality (how will they respond or react)
- whether it is a one-off scenario or a case of long term consumption
It can be more effective and less confronting to start talking in terms of your employee’s attitude towards safety and general work performance. This approach usually works better than immediately confronting the alcohol matter.
You need to take care when making this judgement in case the employee is ill, experiencing some form of distress or maybe taking prescribed medication. Medication often produces unusual types of behaviour, especially when combined with any alcohol.
In some cases the consumption of alcohol might be due to your employee experiencing a personal crisis. Examples are:
- relationship breakdown
- financial problems
- tight deadlines
- unrealistic performance targets
- harassment or bullying
As you can see, as an employer or manager you have to deal with a situation much more complex than a person simply drinking on the job.
Constructing a Framework For Safe Levels of Alcohol
This is why you must have an updated and legally robust employee policy and procedure concerning AOD (alcohol and other drugs). This is absolutely critical.
The policy needs to include elements such as:
- education, prevention, counselling and rehabilitation arrangements
- procedures for reporting alcohol abuse at work
- monitoring work performance
- how to approach a person suspected of being under the influence
- disciplinary measures
- keeping of employee records
- support programs (Employee Assistance Programs)
The severity of prosecution of policy violations will vary from workplace to workplace.
Talk to us if you want to find out more. With 18 years of industry expertise behind us we have developed a suite of must-have services.
- Workshop to educate staff about the impact of alcohol and drugs and how they can identify users
- Develop legally robust alcohol and drug policy
- Alcohol and drug screening – onsite, pre-employment
Final Thoughts on Alcohol at Work
The bottom line is this. Government authorities demand that employers provide a safe and healthy work environment.
To breach these regulations and leave workers open to suffering bullying, injury or loss of any kind due to alcohol use is to leave yourself unprotected to prosecution. And, probably, loss of reputation and revenue.
Is it worth the risk of possibly upsetting one group of people – those who have an expectation or sense of entitlement to arrive at work intoxicated or consume alcohol in the workplace – at the risk of endangering all of your work force? And those associated with your business such as customers, contractors, suppliers, delivery drivers, etc.?
Clearly, the promotion of safe levels of alcohol at work as part of a drug-safe (AOD) workplace is essential for your business.