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Legal issues that could arise when an employee has a problem with alcohol or drugs

February 15, 2016

Alcohol and drug misuse is detrimental in the workplace and can lead to several issues ranging from low productivity, increased injuries and fatalities, absenteeism, theft and low morale among employees. Additionally, employees hooked on drugs and alcohol may develop a preoccupation with obtaining and selling these substances to their colleagues, creating an inhospitable working environment. Left unchecked, the situation can become very expensive for industries and businesses due to high employee turnover and the subsequent recruitment and training of new employees.

As an employer, you should be aware of the legal issues that could arise as a result of drug or alcohol abuse in the workplace. According to the Health and Safety at Work Act (1974), UK employers have a duty of care to protect the health, safety and welfare of their employees. This means that as an employer, you could be in breach of this duty, and potentially liable, if you knowingly allow one of your employees to work whilst under the influence of alcohol or drugs.

Furthermore, the Misuse of Drugs Act (1971) also stipulates that it is a criminal offence for occupiers of premises (including employers) to knowingly permit the production, supply or use of controlled substances on their premises. You will therefore be breaking the law if you ignore any drug-related activities taking place on your business premises.

Your employees can hold you liable and sue you for compensation in case of an alcohol or drug-related accident. Should such accidents result in injuries or hospitalisation, your business could incur increased healthcare costs, legal liabilities and increased worker’s compensation costs. All these have the potential to significantly eat into your bottom line.

Preventing and handling workplace alcohol and drug misuse

One way to curb drug or alcohol abuse among your employees is to come up with a workplace drugs policy. This should clearly set out the rules and procedures for dealing with issues arising from substance abuse in the workplace. All employees should be made aware of this policy as well as the disciplinary measures to be taken should they fail to adhere to the stipulated rules.

The drugs and alcohol policy should also clearly explain whether your employees are subject to workplace drug testing. Drug testing at work is permitted in the UK and has evolved to include non-invasive methods of sample collection such as oral fluid lab tests, urine tests and hair sample analysis. However, employees have to give clear consent to participate in the testing.

The results of these drug tests should be handled in a confidential manner. Where possible, be supportive towards employees with drug problems. The best course of action is to refer them to appropriate counselling and support services. Sometimes this may not be enough and tougher disciplinary measures may be necessary especially if your workplace has a zero-tolerance drug policy or if the employee in person is a repeat offender.

As an employer, you have a responsibility to ensure all your employees have a healthy and safe environment to work in. If an employee’s behaviour could place themselves or their colleagues at risk, it is your duty to intervene to mitigate the situation.