Weekly dilemma: random alcohol screening

I am the HR manager of a large UK manufacturer and our employees use a lot of heavy machinery. I am concerned about the amount of lunchtime boozing that takes place regularly among staff and am considering introducing random tests for insurance and safety reasons. What are the legal implications and is there anything else I can do?

You have a general duty under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 to ensure, as far as reasonably practicable, the health, safety and welfare of your employees. If you knowingly allow an employee under the influence of excess alcohol to continue working and this places the employee or others at risk, you could be prosecuted. You could, in addition, also be held liable for personal injury claims should the employee suffer an accident at work.

As a starting point you should prepare and publish an alcohol at work policy that clearly sets out the company’s zero-tolerance position on employees being under the influence of alcohol at work. Specific reference should be made to lunchtime drinking and the potential disciplinary consequences should an employee return to work having drunk too much alcohol.

A growing number of companies where employees use heavy machinery operate screening and testing as a way of controlling alcohol problems. However, alcohol screening can be a sensitive issue and you should consult with the workforce with a view to gaining their consent prior to the introduction of screening tests. During the consultation process you should emphasise that this measure is designed to prevent risks to employees and others in the workplace.

There is a risk that if you tried to force a test on an unwilling employee they could resign and claim constructive dismissal. Even so, you should set out in the alcohol at work policy the potential disciplinary consequences of refusing to undergo a test where it has been reasonably requested.

Michael Ball, employment partner at Halliwells

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