EurWORK European Observatory of Working Life

Belgium: Use of Alcohol/Drugs at the Workplace

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  • Observatory: EurWORK
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  • Published on: 03 May 2012

Guy Van Gyes

Disclaimer: This information is made available as a service to the public but has not been edited by the European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions. The content is the responsibility of the authors.

This report summarises firstly the main facts and figures on the use of alcohol/drugs at the workplace. Information on this matter is scarce and although the effects for the individual and its work environment can be high, the impact factor seems to be low on the general health and safety situation in Belgium. Nevertheless, Belgian social partners developed new legislative rules on the matter, seeking to create greater recognition of the issue and to encourage a preventive rather than punitive approach. This initiative triggered new campaigns and actions-in-the-field. However, a definitive study on the impact at the workplace is lacking.


Block 1: Main sources of information dealing with the issue of alcohol/drug use at the workplace at national level and its relation with working conditions, etc.

1.1 Are there national statistical sources (surveys, administrative registers including company reports as surveys / reports from the Labour Inspectorate, Labour doctors, etc) that provide information on the issue of alcohol/drug use at the workplace in your country? If so, identify them and explain their characteristics and methodology. Please refer both to general population health surveys/sources or general alcohol/drug use surveys/sources as to working conditions or workplace specific surveys/sources

  • Name of the statistical source

  • Scope

  • Goals

  • Methodology

  • Periodicity

No national statistical sources exist on the phenomenon. Alcohol and drug (ab)use is as subject covered by the Health Interview Survey (Gezondheisenquête/Enquête de Santé), 2008. No links are however made to a job context. The survey has a question about occupation, but this question is only very limitedly used in the further analysis. In connection with problematic drug use, Belgium is working within the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drugs Addiction (EMCDDA on an improvement of the statistics. However, also here only general figures, not related to the job situation, but divided by occupation statutes, will be available.

1.2. Are there any other sources of information (published after mid-2000s) that may provide valuable information on the issue (i.e. ad-hoc studies, sectoral studies, administrative reports, articles, published case studies, etc). If so, identify and describe them.

In the period before and after the new legislation/regulation of 2009 (see infra), some ad-hoc studies and information came available.

1. Securex study

As part of the systematic medical screening the company as external service for prevention and protection at work organises, the Alcohol Use Disorder Identification Test (AUDIT) of the WHO was taken in the year 2007 from 7169 respondents – a representative sample for the Belgian private sector by age, gender, occupational category and sector.

2. The BELSTRESS III study was a Belgian epidemiological cohort study focusing on risk factors for sickness absence from work in men and women. The main objectives were:

  • to study and compare risk factors of sickness absence from work in men and women;

  • to study and compare the causes of sickness absence episodes of 15 days or longer in men and women;

  • to study and compare risk factors of cause-specific sickness absence from work in men and women.

The study was conducted in 2004-2006 and comprised 2,983 male and female workers aged 30-55 years from seven companies or public administrations across Belgium (other than the ones in the Belstress I and II studies). Alcohol use and alcohol dependency was operationalised as possible antecedents in the study. The questions did not focus on alcohol use at work.

3. Policy studies

Two non-representative studies, before and after the new regulation, contain information on what kind of alcohol- and drugs policies companies develop:

  • Survey of 468 HR-managers by HR-service company Attentia (2009)

  • Web-survey as campaign instrument of Qado (2010, see infra on this action).

Block 2: Information on the extent of the use of alcohol and drugs at the workplace in your country, as well as the type of situations (sectors, occupations, working conditions, etc.) in which this use occurs, its consequences (production process, social relations at work) and the rationale behind it

2.1. Please provide the available data and information on the prevalence of drug/alcohol use at the workplace in your country, if possible differentiating data by:

  • Type of substance

  • Sectors => specific focus on the construction and transport sectors

  • Occupational profiles

  • Other relevant variables

The Health Survey and the Securex study contain information on the prevalence of alcohol use. However the questions do NOT differentiate between drinking during working time and outside working time.

The Securex study concludes that 13% of the Belgian employees use alcohol in an unsafe way. This % is much higher among men (18%) than women (6%). Further differences can be detected by age, occupational status and sector: male blue-collar workers, younger than 30 and working in industry have the highest odds. No differences exist by the size of the company. Driving after drinking (at least once in the last 12 months) happens more frequently when the workers are older and belong to the managerial staff. The general percentage is 1 in 3 workers, which have been driving after drinking at least once in the last 12 months.

87% of the interviewed workers declared that the employer never served alcohol beverages during lunch time in the last 12 months. For 11% this happened at a special occasion. 1.56% states that this happens daily.

1 in 3 workers (32%) is never allowed to drink alcohol during working time. 51% only at special occasions (personnel party, farewell drink, …), 10% at special occasions and limitedly at lunch break, 2% without limits at the lunch break, 5% has no restrictions.

The tolerance from the employers side on alcohol drinking at work is according to this survey higher for white-collar workers – 20% is allowed to do it daily - and in the private sector (19% compared to 12% in the public sector). Size of the company plays no role.

The Attentia survey of HR managers – a non-representative sample surveyed before the change in regulations - learnt that 35% of the companies had no policy on the issue. This % varied strongly by size of the company (51% a policy in small enterprises, 75% in large companies). Rules on the policy form a part of the formal work rules in 80% of the cases with a policy. 29% mention the question in the introduction brochure for personnel.

18% states furthermore in this survey that there is a zero-tolerance policy in the company on alcohol and drugs use. 56% makes an exception for special occasions, 20% have a more loose policy (alcohol at lunch, business meetings, …). Only 14% of the surveyed managers speak about a possible internal assistance, when a worker needs help with his alcohol or drug problem. The HR-management (52%), the direct boss (52%) and the prevention advisor (health and safety officer, 30%) or company doctor (20%) are the main people involved in such a case

Q-Ado questionnaire has been filled in by 1190 companies in 2010. The questionnaire is an awareness- raising tool at the qado website, set up by the Association for alcohol and other drug problems. This organisation is the main civil society organisation, mobilising around this issue in the country and in this regard recognised by the authorities. In follow-up of the CCT 100 (see infra) the Association started a new campaign, financed by the government on alcohol use at the workplace. The results of the web-survey learn that 60 to 70% of the companies allow alcohol drinking at special occasions and receptions. 42% during business lunch and 32% during lunch. 32% of the respondents (managers) state that no work-related risk factors exist in their company that stimulate drinking. 28% mentions contact with customers and suppliers as factor, 21% the availability at work, 19% mention stress at work and 17% the pinpoint to the behaviour of work colleagues.

42% of the enterprises has no alcohol at all at the workplace; 22% when the employee brings it with him/her (for example for a farewell drink). 22% serves alcohol at the cafeteria. 3 in 4 states that drinking is not allowed during working duty time.

2.2. Please provide data and information on the rationale and consequences of drug/alcohol use at work. Focus on construction, transport:

Looking in literature database, the study on alcohol abuse peaked in Belgium in the 60s and 70s and has been always strongly focusing on the medical effects. In recent years, the focus of larger studies has been mainly on alcohol use of young people (students and minors).

Reasons for consuming alcohol/drugs

  • Use of drugs related to certain working conditions (e.g. alcohol when working in cold / warm environments; stimulants when working at high rhythm, etc…)

  • Accessibility/availability

According to 79% of the respondents of the Q-Ado web survey (HR-managers) is the (possible) problem an effect of drinking outside work. In this regard, the VAD (Flemish Association for Alcohol and other drug problems) speaks about work-related alcohol abuse: an alcohol problem is causing problems at work and most of the time is not caused by work. In other words: the problematic aspect is most of the time not related to work factors (see also the limited space Belgian studies on alcohol and drug problems attach to job-related variables, cf. point 1). This figures can also be related to the figures of the previous point, where on average each time only 20% of the respondents agree with a possible risk factor at their workplace.

Consequences of consuming alcohol/drugs

  • working conditions affected by drug use (risk increase, accidents, absenteeism, sick leave…):

  • Accidents and fatalities due to alcohol/drug use

  • Sick leaves attributed to alcohol/drugs, absenteeism

  • Assessment of costs

  • Use of alcohol/drugs negatively affecting other working conditions:

  • Uneven workload distribution…

  • Work organisation

  • working environment (deteriorated social relations at work, higher number of conflicts…)

The Q-Ado survey collected the following top 5 of work-related effects: arriving not on time at work (42%); irregular performance (42%); sick leave; short absenteeism (40%); inappropriate behaviour (being impolite; aggressive; mobbing; /) (40%).

Besides this opinion survey of HR managers, the recent, available studies investigate the relationship the other way round: what are causes of something at the workplace and integrate alcohol use or dependence as one of the possible, explanatory factors. Both available studies only attach a very minor role to the alcohol factor.

Detail analysis of accidents with trucks showed that alcohol played a very minor role: 2% of truck drivers, involved in an accident in the period 2000-2007, had a positive alcohol test (above 0.22 mg/l (milligram per litre expired alveolar air) (Martensen, 2009; Wilmots, Hermans & Brijs, 2009).

This result on the effect on truck accidents is comparable with the general results of the Belstres s study, which looked for explanatory factors of absenteeism at work. Alcohol dependence only had a clear , but small significant explanatory effect on long-term absenteeism (more than 15 days). The effect was stronger in the group of men.

Block 3: Identify legislation and agreements at national level concerning alcohol/drugs use at the workplace, specifically those related to testing practices

3.1. Please identify and describe the main existing legislation and agreements concerning the prohibition/limitation of alcohol/drug use at work:

  • Is there any legislation or agreement specifically intended to prohibit or limit alcohol/drug use at work? Please describe:

  • Type of legislation / agreement (Government or parliament laws, agreements from social dialogue, from the Governments and social partners, from other organisations, etc.)

  • Contents, stipulations

  • Collectives affected

  • Is there any sectoral legislation or agreement with the same purpose? Please focus on the construction and transport sectors

Until a Royal Decree of 19 May 2010 abolished it, article 99 of the Belgian health and safety code (Algemeen Reglement voor de Arbeidsbescherming, ARAB) prohibited the bringing to the workplace of alcohol beverages (more than 6% alcohol). In other words, one or two simple beers were allowed, but no stronger beverages. The Royal decree is now replaced by a new national collective agreement, which has full legal status in the Belgian private sector. It is expected that the public sector will take over the regulation. This has happened not yet fully, but some administrations, for example the Flemish regional administration, have already adapted the rules. Public sector jobs are in Belgium organised by a statute (not by collective agreements).

Collective agreement No. 100 was concluded on 1 April 2009. It took effect on the same day and requires every company in the Belgian private sector to have a preventive alcohol and drugs policy in place by 1 April 2010. Besides the prevention aspect, it is important to notice that the regulation was expanded from alcohol to other drugs. No evaluation study is already available on the implementation level.

Underlying philosophy of agreement

The NAR/CNT members see a preventive alcohol and drugs policy as being part of a company’s integral health and safety policy and its general human resources (HR) management strategy. They are of the opinion that such a policy should be based on the following assumptions:

  • it is better to tackle alcohol or drug problems within a company by approaching the employees concerned about the failure in their work-related performance and behavior, instead of focusing on their substance dependency;

  • an efficient alcohol and drugs policy applies to all employees of a company, from top to bottom;

  • a successful alcohol and drugs policy is based on four pillars – information and training, rules, procedures for acute and chronic abuse, and assistance.

Therefore, Collective agreement No. 100 aims to encourage discussion, and to prevent and deal with failure at work caused by alcohol and drugs use in companies, due to the detrimental consequences this has for both employers and employees. Because of the diverse circumstances of the numerous companies involved, the agreement does not impose one preventive alcohol and drugs policy, but rather creates a framework allowing each individual company to develop its own policy. Overall, company policies in this regard should focus on prevention and not on sanctions.

Phased implementation

The agreement requires the employer to establish the basic principles and goals of the company’s alcohol and drugs policy in a declaration of intent; this will form part of the company’s workplace rules. The policy agreement may also incorporate an optional second phase which renders such principles more concrete. For example, rules can be introduced to cover:

  • the availability or prohibition of alcohol in the workplace;

  • the bringing of alcohol or drugs onto company premises;

  • work-related consumption of alcohol;

  • procedures for investigation and action if an employee is found to be unable to perform their work owing to the use of alcohol or drugs.

The works council (Conseil d’Entreprise/Ondernemingsraden, CE/OR) and the workplace health and safety committee (Comité pour la prévention et protection au travail/Comité voor preventie en bescherming op het werk, CPPT/CPBW) have to be informed and consulted about the alcohol and drugs policy that the employer wishes to put in place and especially about the use of tests in this regard. In the absence of such a committee, the trade union delegation has to give advice. If no trade union delegation is present at the establishment, the scheduled information and consultation takes place directly with the employees. The applicable alcohol and drugs policy that is put in place must be mentioned in the employer’s work rules and should form an integrated part of these rules.

Besides this specific labour regulation, general civil or penal law on the matters stays of course also in place. According to the penal law, the possession of drugs is in principle illegal (although some tolerance in exist in proactive by the judicial system). Belgium also has laws on drunk driving and showing alcohol and drugs intoxication in public places. When the workplace can be defined as a public space (for example for a waitress working in a bar), employees also are bound by this latter law.

Sectoral implementation

A range of sectors supported the new national agreement with the setting-up of working groups to develop guidelines and disseminate information on the new rules and policies to the sector.

Such a working group was set-up in the transport sector (joint committee 140, collective agreement for the years 2009-2010). Article 18 of the Belgian social statute of the fishermen, introduced in 2003, stated that is not permitted to have alcohol or drugs on board; only light alcoholic beverages are allowed and in an amount that can defined as normal for the duration of the trip and the amount of people on board. The fisher is responsible for all the possible damage, sanctions and fines the ship experiences as the result of an offence of this rule.

The construction sector was one of the few sectors that contained already a reference to alcohol in the sector regulations before 2009. As part of the collective agreement on the humanisation of work, agreed in 2004, the section on providing beverages at the workplace stated explicitly in article 36 that it is prohibited to serve alcohol at the workplace. The sector national agency on health and safety (NAVB/CNAC) organised also a campaign in the aftermath of the 2009 national agreement (see the brochure).

3.2. Specific focus on legislation / agreements regarding testing practices intended to control the use of alcohol/drugs at work. Please consider questions such us:

  • how are the tests regulated (agreements / legislation or are there guidelines)?

  • what type/forms of tests – testing methods and for what type of substances?

  • who can ask for tests, on who's initiative are tests initiated? for what purpose/reasons?

  • is the consent of the person to be tested needed?

  • is pre-employment testing (before work contract signing) allowed? can tests be included as a clause in work contracts?

  • by whom are the tests undertaken? are tests limited to safety sensitive positions or specific sectors (transport, etc.) or are they overall?

  • when, at what moment can tests be undertaken?

  • What are the necessary established pre-conditions for proceeding for a test?

  • what are the conditions/rules/procedure under which tests can be undertaken? what is the role of the labour doctor and labour inspectorate in testing?

  • To whom will the results be communicated and under what reporting form/

  • who has access to the results of the tests?

  • what can be the consequences of positive results on the work contractual relation?

Describe changes, evolution development of regulation / agreements on testing, drawing the attention to the review in light of the improvement of the testing methods

The rules on testing and its ‘missing links’ or ‘privacy dimensions’ is a much debated issue by legal experts in labour law. The question was the main driver of the new collective agreement 100. Summarising all the technicalities is not possible with the amount of space we have here. We can only pinpoint to some key aspects and regulations.

Key legal dimensions

1. The relative importance from a legal perspective

Experts (Plets & Van Eeckhoutte, 2010) start with the warning that the testing question is maybe not so important from a legal perspective. Tests are made to establish the degree or amount of intoxication. In a labour situation, this is a start to build up evidence for an employer to sanction an employee or to redeem (financial) responsibility for certain employee behavior, but it is not enough. It has to be established that the worker is experiencing loss of behavior control, which results in a job disfunctioning. Written statements of witnesses and official police observations are as much necessary in this regard.

2. Medical test or not

Medical test (in casu blood and urine analysis) are bounded by additional laws than the rules laid down in collective agreement 100. A breathalyser test is considered a non-medical test. An alcohol ignition lock in the car is also considered to be a breathalyser test. Discussion exist on the fact that testing of hair or saliva has to be considered as a medical test or not.

General rules of Agreement 100

Collective Agreement No. 100 also lays down specific rules on the use of alcohol and drugs tests. Such tests will have to meet a number of conditions in order to remain valid.

In order to protect the privacy of an employee, the agreement strictly regulates the use of such testing. No biological or medical tests may be used. Only tests that give no exact percentage of intoxication, but just a positive or negative indication of intoxication – such as breath tests or psychomotor skills tests – are permitted. Moreover, testing cannot be used in isolation but has to be part of a package of policy implementation measures. The measures must define the rules that have to be observed when administering such tests, including the nature of the tests, the persons qualified for administering them, the times at which they can be administered and the possible consequences of positive test results. Finally, alcohol and drugs testing has to fulfill certain conditions, notably:

  • it can only be used for prevention purposes;

  • the test results cannot be used in a way that is incompatible with the prevention objective – they do not allow for sanctioning the employee concerned;

  • tests must be adequate, objective and proportional;

  • the employee concerned has to consent to the test;

  • the possibility of taking tests cannot result in discrimination between employees;

  • the processing of test results as personal data is forbidden.

Furthermore, the commentary to the agreement states that a positive test result may result only in:

  • referral for assistance from the company;

  • immediate and temporary expulsion from the workplace;

  • reassignment to another position.

Specific conditions for medical tests

In relation to medical tests other laws interfere: the Law of 28 January 2003 on medical exams and the Royal Decree on Health control. These laws prescribe that this kind of test can only or mainly be done by the occupational health doctors, which are linked to the company (internal or external service for prevention and protection at work). Another important criterion is that this type of test is not executed within a sanctioning procedure, but as part of the preventive content of the health control. Workers with a safety risk or safety function have to undergo in Belgium on a regular basis a health control by the company doctor. People, applying for such a job, also have to undergo a pre-employment screening. A third legal factor is that the worker/patient can in principle always refuse such a test as part of the control. A fourth is that it is the doctor itself that makes the decision to do the test (there can be no obligation by the employer). Outside this legally –provided health control for specific types of workers, the medical testing by the occupational health doctor can only be organised with the ‘informed consent’ of the worker. Further legal aspects are that the test:

  • has to be relevant (to establish if a worker is capable to do a job or activity)

  • proportional (evidence can’t be gathered in another way)

  • with a right to appeal and to have a counter-expertise.

  • taking into account the professional secrecy rules of the medical profession

Block 4: Identify and describe national prevention programmes to combat the use of alcohol/drugs at the workplace, especially those based on agreements and cooperation of the social partners:

  • Organisation(s) responsible for these programmes

  • Drivers and motivations. Objectives

  • Target groups (sectors, specific occupations…)

  • Content and activities developed (campaigns for alcohol/drug free workplaces, information to workers, training, professional counselling and personal assistance, reintegration programmes…)

  • Tools (seminars, brochures, toolkits, guidelines, polls, tests…)

  • Inter-relation with other (health) programmes. Participation of health professionals

  • Are the prevention programmes integrated in the general working conditions/OSH training programmes and management systems?

  • Are the prevention programmes based on joint assessment of the social partners and defined in an agreed policy for the enterprises? Role of work councils and H/S committees.

  • Performance and outcomes of the programmes

  • Changes overtime

  • Assessment of the programmes. Point of view of the social partners.

In the aftermath of the new 2009 regulation a range of sensibilisation and information campaigns have been organised by the social partners at different levels (intersectoral, sectoral, …). We highlight two.


Health promotion is in the federalised Belgium a regionalised policy domain. In both communities exist associations specialised in dealing with alcohol and drug problems. These associations have been setting up activities after the new rules in 2009. The Flemish VAD and its French-speaking counterpart Sante-Entreprise have been developing actions with support of the social partners. VAD develop the Qado information portal and invited companies by filling in a web-questionnaire to evaluate their policy and to benchmark their policies to the new rules. Training and coaching activities complemented the web information.

A case example of a company that worked together with the VAD to develop its alcohol and drugs policy is Renmans (audio-file; VRT-radio news 01/04/2010, a retail network of butcher shops. It introduced a zero-tolerance for alcohol and drugs at the workplace and developed procedures for the direct management in the shops when confronted with drinking or drug abuse of an employee. Middle-management got training in the recognition of these types of problems and a training in how to hold a job functioning meeting with the involved employee. All employees were informed about the new rules and information on where to find help, when having a problem, was distributed. The action plan was developed in collaboration with the health and safety committee.

In one year time, more than 1500 companies consulted the website and used the Q-Ado questionnaire to benchmark their policies. The campaign received in 2010 the prize ‘Health and Enterprise’ of the European Health Club.

Clean ship, no shit

The sector of the sea fisheries started a project in 2005. It got the support from all the social partners and was co-ordinated by the provincial health and safety services of West-Flanders. A policy plan was developed. A working group supervised the activities. A charter was signed by all involved partners (transport unions; employers organisation Rederscentrale; health and safety services; specific health organisations; training institute; province; …).A stepwise program for acting on board to help the person and to maintain the safety has been detailed. A framework for individual assistance created. A sensibilisation campaign to the fishermen and the student-fishermen was set up with the tile ‘Clean ship, no shit’

Campaign poster anti-alcohol and drugs in the fisheries sector Belgium

Commentary by the NC

NCs are requested to provide a very brief commentary on main obtained results

Data on the phenomenon are scarce and ad-hoc. Nevertheless, sound and recent scientific research learns that alcoholism plays only a very minor role in the Belgian sickness absenteeism (see the Belstress results). This doesn’t mean that these individual cases can lead to a range of work-related problems. In response to these problems, but also as a result of pending juridical quarrels on the testing issue, social partners established new rules on alcohol and drug policies in companies. These new rules triggered a renewed attention to the issue. In-depth evaluation of the implementation of these rules seems necessary to really establish the impact. Early critics of the rules stated that companies are only pressed by the new rules to include a policy statement in the official workplace rules, but that it stays a question mark how these policy formulations are followed by preventive and/or curative actions-in-the field.

Guy Van Gyes, HIVA-K.U.Leuven

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