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Alcohol and Drug Misuse: Is it time to test your workforce?

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Health & Safety

First published in the February 2022 issue of Quarry Management

Suzannah Robin, an alcohol and drug safety expert at AlcoDigital, discusses the problem of alcohol misuse during the COVID-19 crisis and explains how online training can promote safety in the extractives sector

The full implications of the COVID-19 pandemic will take many more months, if not years, to play out. One of the many worrying consequences is that the restrictions and lockdowns have left a legacy of harmful drinking. A report published this year found that 36% of people increased their alcohol consumption during the first lockdown in 2020.

Whether the result of an occasional binge or a chronic problem, alcohol abuse can wreak devastation on both work and home life. In safety critical industries such as mining and quarrying, a drug- and alcohol-free workforce could not be more important.

With the pandemic leading to increased addiction issues and associated mental ill health, this is a problem that needs careful consideration for all employers within the UK’s extractives sector. Research shows that employees in some industries are more likely to become heavy or dependent drinkers than others. Topping the list was mining, along with construction, hospitality, and utilities.

However, there are important risk factors that have been identified as increasing the likelihood of alcohol-related hazards. These include shift work, difficult working conditions, personal conflict and stress, lack of control over job security, changes at work, and drinking being the norm.

There is no doubt that drinking alcohol impairs judgement, damages physical co-ordination, and makes accidents far more likely, yet the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) does not release data on how many accidents at work involve alcohol.

Public Health England, however, says the cost of alcohol misuse to the economy is £7 billion annually in lost productivity through unemployment and sickness, whilst the charity Alcohol Change UK reports that 40% of employers mention alcohol as a significant cause of low productivity.

Testing in the workplace – what is the law?

While the UK mining and quarrying sector is not required by law to screen employees for drugs or alcohol, employers are legally required to ensure the safety of workers under their care. As the HSE states: ‘You could be breaking the law if you knowingly allow drug-related activities in your workplace, and you fail to act’.

Random or regular drugs and alcohol testing is a reliable way to ensure your business is compliant with the law. The benefits of a screening programme are quickly realized, sending a powerful ‘stay safe’ message to the workforce.

There is inevitably some time and financial investment involved in setting up a testing policy, but breathalysers and other testing devices have become increasingly cost-effective and user-friendly over recent years. In the long term, screening policies present an investment well worth making; if a serious accident occurs and an employer is found to have been negligent in any way, there is a clear risk of prosecution and hefty fines.

In addition to breathalysers, alcohol interlocks can be fitted to safety critical equipment or machinery, preventing start-up until a negative breath test has been registered. Another form of interlock device, the Lifeloc Sentinel, requires no mouthpiece and can be fitted to unsupervised turnstiles, electric gates, and other barrier systems – preventing anyone impaired by alcohol from entering a worksite.

Covid-safe training for employers

Setting up a testing programme is an important measure in supporting your workforce. But with so many screening methods available, it can be hard to know where to start, especially when Covid safety remains a primary concern. A good first step is to book an accredited training course that will offer all the knowledge and practical skills necessary to implement screening to suit the specific requirements of individual businesses and workplaces.

Online ‘live’ training, such as that provided by AlcoDigital, gives comprehensive guidance while also remaining completely Covid-safe. Based on AlcoDigital’s award-winning workplace training days, these hosted Zoom webinars were designed specifically in response to the first UK lockdown and have run successfully ever since. Webinar training ensures companies can keep up to date with the latest industry recommendations and relevant legislation at a time when the need has never been greater.

Hands-on demonstrations of the latest innovative screening methods can be given online, eg the fully automated Worksober device that uses facial-recognition technology to prevent misidentification.

AlcoDigital have now resumed face-to-face training, but many clients continue to opt for the convenience of Zoom webinars, allowing staff members to join in the session from any location.

With professional and reliable training, an unobtrusive testing policy can be implemented within a matter of weeks. Whilst there may be initial resistance to alcohol and drugs testing from some employees, most workers welcome the policy and recognize that testing will only enhance their overall safety and well-being.

Every employee in the UK deserves protection and support from the dangers of alcohol or drug misuse. As the UK slowly emerges from the COVID-19 crisis, the question must be not ‘if’ but ‘when’ to start screening your workforce. 

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