Employers have many responsibilities to their staff, especially when it comes to keeping them safe in the workplace. Legislation dictates many of the practices which take place within the UK’s businesses, but there is a grey area when it comes to alcohol and drug testing – which means many companies have out of date policies or simply don’t have one at all.
Current regulations in the form of the Health and Safety at Work Act and the Management of Health and Safety at Work give no specific guidance on alcohol and drug consumption, aside from determining that employers have the duty to protect staff. In addition, there has also been little in the way of new information coming from official sources in recent years.
We know from talking to employers that many have HR policies which might be 15 years out of date – things have moved on a great deal in that time which means the policies will not reflect the current issues facing companies and their staff.
Even more worrying is the proportion of companies which have no alcohol and drug policy at all – with statistics from the Home Office showing 11 per cent of adults had taken drugs in 2017/18, and over four per cent in the last month, it’s an issue which has the potential to affect any company.
Cannabis is the most commonly used drug, followed by cocaine – but trends change all the time. New psychoactive substances (also known as NPS or, wrongly, ‘legal’ highs) are a real focus at the moment, and we know they are mostly a problem in prisons and among the homeless but actually statistics show less than one per cent of adults used them in 2017/18.
We also know that what happens in society is generally reflected in workplaces – it would be naïve in the extreme to think drug use only occurs at the weekend. That’s why workplace drug testing and an up to date associated policy is crucial; particularly in industries such as construction, haulage and security. Without it, if something were to go wrong, there can be significant reputational and financial damage, and of course physical harm.
Employers risk prosecution following an incident if they knew an employee was under the influence of drugs or alcohol but allowed them to continue working. Specific legislation governs certain sectors such as those working within the rail industry, and of course those driving as part of their job, but effects such as irritability, aggression, confusion and concentration fluctuations can cause problems within any sector or workplace – and the impact on sickness absence and time keeping could have a profound effect, particularly within smaller companies or where there is a widespread issue.
Eurofins Forensics continually looks for ways to simplify the logistics involved in testing as well as the methods – with a current focus on workplace breath testing in addition to the currently widely used urine, oral fluids and hair testing methods.
Testing should form part of a comprehensive policy that focuses on support. While its important employees aren’t undertaking certain tasks adversely affected by drugs or alcohol, which could endanger the safety of themselves or those around them, it’s also important to allow team members to feel comfortable disclosing if they have a problem, putting in place robust assistance including signposting towards relevant independent support.
It’s not about punishing employees or controlling what they do outside of work – but where alcohol and drugs are impacting on workplace performance and safety, the company has a duty not only to keep them safe but also to try to help them tackle the problem.