EurWORK European Observatory of Working Life

Ireland- EWCO CAR on Use of Alcohol/Drugs at the Workplace

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  • Observatory: EurWORK
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  • Published on: 03 May 2012

Tony Dobbins

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 CAR outlines developments in Ireland relating to use of alcohol and drugs at the workplace as of September 2011. Legal measures and collective agreements relating to issues like testing tend to focus on certain sectors, notably the transport and defence sectors. There are also general guidelines covering testing provided by the Health and Safety Authority, as well as Ireland’s largest employer association and trade union respectively. However, these guidelines are voluntary and not legally binding.


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

There are no national statistical sources that provide information on the issue of alcohol/drug use at the workplace in Ireland.

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.

Yes. Researchers from the National University of Ireland Galway (NUIG) conducted sector specific research into the attitudes of Irish construction apprentices to drug and alcohol testing which presents evidence on the use of alcohol and drugs by construction apprentices and significant findings on accident levels. While the focus of the research was on finding out the attitudes of construction apprentices to drug and alcohol testing, the findings in relation to use and the consequences of use are explored. The motivation for undertaking the research was to determine what workers think about intoxicants testing, as little is known about the issue. The researchers chose the construction industry for two reasons: it is a major employer; and it is one of the most hazardous industries for Irish employees. The survey population consisted of craft/construction trade apprentices based at a training centre for a period as part of their apprenticeship. Of the 168 apprentices enrolled at the centre, 148 completed questionnaires, of which 140 were useable. The research was published in 2008, and further details on the prevalence and consequences of use of alcohol and drugs at the workplace are provided in block 2 below.

(An article Construction apprentices’ attitudes to workplace drug testing in Ireland, by Victoria Hogan BA MSc CMIOSH, NUI Galway, Roseanne Cannon BSc MSc Grad IOSH, DIT and Saoirse Nic Gabhainn BA MA PhD, NUI Galway, was published in the IOSH learned journal ‘policy and practice in health and safety’: Vol 04 Issue 2, p43)

In addition, there have been a handful of important cases in Ireland in the transport sector covering drugs and alcohol related incidents. Most recently, in 2011, an investigation by Irish Rail’s Railway Accident Investigation Unit into a rail crossing accident concluded that the lack of a formal risk assessment was the underlying factor and the gatekeeper’s use of cannabis was a contributory factor. The case is covered in Ireland’s Health & Safety Review magazine (July 2011) (

In another case, Alstom Ireland, a French-owned multinational which maintains the Dublin LUAS tram system, had dismissed a worker in September 2006, following a random drug test. The Rights Commissioner said that the dismissal was conducted in a fair and reasonable way, in accordance with a drug use policy adopted by management. But he added that both the company and the union involved, the TEEU, should enter immediate discussions as to what the reasonable tolerance level should be. The decision was appealed to the Labour Court. The Labour Court held that the employee should be re-engaged and the company and unions should agree guidelines for testing procedures (see HSR, March 2008, pg18). The recommendation is on the Labour Court’s website:

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

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

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

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 NUI Galway survey findings in the construction sector (referred to in block 1 above) can be summarised under three headings: number of accidents consequent on drug and alcohol use; lesser consequences of intoxicants use; and attitudes to drug and alcohol testing.


The NUIG survey notes that 4.6% of those construction apprentices surveyed reported having an accident due to alcohol use. Just 3.6% reported having an accident due to drug use. However the researchers go on to make the point that if the percentages were applied to the total number of apprentices in the country (15,614 construction apprentices) and if 4% of apprentices reported an accident due to drug or alcohol use, 625 people would suffer an accident in the year.

Other consequences

The NUIG researchers note that 40% of the respondents reported feeling drunk at work in the last year and 82.1% reported feeling hung over from the previous night’s drinking. As a result of drinking, 45.7% missed days from work, 70.7% felt tired at work and 62.9% arrived late or left early. Drug use seems to have less of an impact on work, with just 2.9% missing days from work, 9.3% arriving late or leaving early and 10% feeling tired. Just 6.4% felt hung over at work.

The researchers suggest, in relation to the findings on alcohol use, that it “is likely to represent a considerable loss to industry through underperformance”. They add that it “underlines the necessity of addressing these issues”.

Attitudes to testing

The researchers’ overall finding is that frequent and high-volume users of drugs and alcohol reported more negative attitudes to aspects of testing. Negative feelings were stronger in relation to drink than drugs. Nearly 20% (19.3%) of the frequent and high-volume users of drugs and alcohol strongly disagreed with being randomly tested for alcohol, compared to 16.4% for drugs. Put the other way around, a higher percentage (45.7%) agreed with random testing for drugs, compared to 40.7% for drink. There was more support for announced testing than for random testing.

Over 40% (41.4%) approved of the dismissal of a worker who tested positive for drugs, compared to 15% for alcohol. There was strong support for referring drug users for counselling (32.9%) or to a doctor (33.6%), compared to referring alcohol users: 22.1% and 21.4% respectively.

The research provides insights into both attitudes to intoxicants testing and the level of the use of intoxicants. The vast majority of the respondents (85.7%) to the survey believed that the reason for testing was workplace safety. Only 20.1% of respondents said their employer had a policy on alcohol and even fewer (17.1%) had a policy on drugs.

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

The aim of Ireland’s Safety, Health and Welfare at Work Act, 2005 (the “Act”) is to provide a framework and a set of broad general duties and organizational arrangements necessary to achieve better health and safety. The Act includes a number of general duties for employers and employees, and significantly expands the duties imposed on both. Under the Act, an employee must not be under the influence of an intoxicant, to the extent that he or she is in such a state as to endanger his or her own safety, health or welfare at work or that of others. The Act is primary legislation enacted through parliamentary law.

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

The Road Traffic Acts (1961-2010) regulate use of alcohol and drugs in the road transport sector. The Road Traffic Act (1961) prohibits use of mechanical vehicles while under the influence of alcohol or drugs. Also, the provisions of the Road Traffic Act (2010) allow for random testing by gardai (police) to check for driving under the influence of drugs. Gardai have since been trained in relation to drug testing by the Medical Bureau for Road Safety.

Also, the Railway Safety Act, 2005, permits testing of safety-critical workers on the railways:

Traffic Act (1961) prohibits the use of

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?

Ireland’s Safety, Health and Welfare at Work Act 2005 does not introduce legally binding regulations compelling employers to provide testing for drugs and alcohol at the workplace. Ireland’s Health & Safety Authority (HSA) has opted to publish voluntary guidelines on intoxicants testing, rather than introduce legally binding regulations. In producing the voluntary guidelines, the HSA consulted with the social partners, Government departments and agencies and others who have an interest in the area. In developing guidance the Authority considered what is happening in other countries and the European Laboratory. Guidelines for Legally Defensible Drug Testing. The guidelines are contained in the following ‘Intoxicants at work information sheet’ available on the HSA website:

In addition, there are a number of collective agreements at company and sector level relating to testing procedures (these exist mainly in the transport and defence sector). For example, in the defence sector, since 2002, one in ten members of the Irish Defence Forces are being randomly tested for drugs each year under Compulsory Random Drug Testing (CRDT). The scheme is intended as a deterrent, particularly for young recruits coming into the army. Under agreed procedures, 10% of the members of the Defence Forces are picked at random and must produce a sample. If the sample proves negative, then the specimen and all records are destroyed and there the matter ends. If it is positive, the sample is divided in two with one sample being retained by the Defence Force and the other presented to the individual, who can go and get the sample tested independently in an approved laboratory. If this second test confirms the first positive test, then the individual has seven days to appeal to his/her commanding officer as to whether there were any mitigating circumstances involved. Otherwise, the individual is liable to lose his/her job, which will automatically follow in almost all cases, and the reason for dismissal will be included in the individual's reference. The army representative associations, PDFORRA representing NCOs and RACO representing officers, had pushed for a seven day appeal following a positive test, arguing that dismissal is too abrupt. However, pressure by the Associations to provide a drug rehabilitation programme as an alternative to dismissal was rejected by the army. Any individual can avail of the army's existing Personnel Support Services.

Collective agreements on testing procedures are also present in certain transport organizations. For instance, in 2003 a random testing regime for drugs and alcohol was inserted in the pre-employment collective agreement reached between Ireland’s largest union SIPTU and the then new LUAS tram system operator, Connex. Drugs and alcohol are a more sensitive issue in transport operations than elsewhere, given the obvious safety considerations involved. The move to random testing in LUAS was a first in Irish public transport operations. The Connex/SIPTU deal for the LUAS tram system stated that “it will be a condition of employment that employees co-operate” with the testing procedures. The testing is to be done on a random, fair, basis, with proper respect for the employee’s privacy and rights”. It is also designed solely for health and safety reasons. If there is an accident or incident, workers will have to submit themselves for immediate testing. It is recognised that in these situations, it may not be possible to arrange for the employee to be accompanied. However, all reasonable efforts will be made to allow the employee to be accompanied for this test. Employees also have the right to appeal the outcome of any decision taken. In what was a relatively novel move in drug testing, the deal also said that any employee taking prescribed drugs must advise the company if the drugs impair performance or compromise the company’s health and safety policy. The company’s doctor may be asked to verify this information, at the company’s discretion. Employees are to co-operate with this procedure. Bringing alcohol, drugs or other proscribed substances into the work environment, consuming them during working hours or coming to work under the influence, are all strictly prohibited and a dismissible offence.

On the railways, a drugs and alcohol policy at Iarnrod Eireann (Irish Rail) provides for random testing of 5% of the company’s workforce each year, as well as detailed procedures for same. The new regime for drugs and alcohol testing was introduced in order to comply with the Railway Safety Act 2005. Although this policy relates specifically to the railways , the procedures may be of wider interest to any employments contemplating the introduction of such testing, which is provided for on a voluntary basis under the Safety, Health and Welfare at Work Act 2005.

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

Section 13 of the Safety, Health and Welfare at Work Act 2005 deals with the testing of intoxicants in the workplace, the first time the issue has been covered by legislation. There are four different types of drug testing: (a) on recruitment; (b) for ‘cause’, (e.g if there was an accident); (c) routine, with a regular sample from everyone; and (d) unannounced and random.

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.

Ireland’s main employer association IBEC has produced a guideline on intoxicants for its affiliated members. The guideline aims to provide employers with information and guidance on how to address the misuse of intoxicants (more commonly referred to as alcohol and drugs). It is a general guide and serves as a reference document. The guideline includes a sample intoxicant/alcohol and drug policy that may be adapted by the employer to suit their particular circumstances. It is recommended by IBEC that the development of an alcohol and drug policy by an employer should be undertaken in co-operation with employees.

Ireland’s largest union, SIPTU, has produced a policy for dealing with addiction in Irish workplaces:

SIPTU. (2009) Dealing with addiction: a model policy for use in the workplace including a joint charter for employee well-being. Dublin: SIPTU.

Further, in an interview about drug and alcohol testing procedures with Ireland’s Health & Safety Review (HSR) magazine in May 2009, Esther Lynch of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU) (who is also a board member of the Health & Safety Authority) remarked that trade unions are “looking at practices in companies with concern”. What she describes as “quite bad practices” are developing, in particular in relation to employment contracts. In response to these developments, ICTU has established a trade union sub-committee on drug and alcohol testing.She listed specific issues around drug and alcohol testing that concern trade unions:

• The definition of zero

• Organisations providing drug testing services in Ireland are not licensed

• Random testing

• Recruitment agencies offering what Lynch says is called “a complete service”, which includes testing.

Pointing to the definition of zero tolerance in the European Workplace Drug Testing Society’s Guidelines on Legally Defensible Testing, Lynch made the point that zero is defined as under 15ngs/ml, while many employers are specifying zero as 0.0ngs/ml. Referring to the Society’s Guidelines, she makes the point that a person who has taken a Solpadine pain killer tablet would fail the test. There is, she says, a mismatch between the employer definition of zero and science laboratory definitions. Explaining the trade union movement’s concerns about the practice of recruitment agencies carrying out tests as part of “a complete service” package, Lynch says people are not being told the results of tests. Often people are deprived of jobs, without ever being given any indication of the reason why. On trade unions’ concerns about random testing, she explains that unions believe in the principle of ‘with cause testing’. On licensing of organisations providing testing services, she says “most countries have a licensing system”. Lynch believes that (voluntary) “Guidelines will not be strong enough and will not give the certainty that employees are looking for if they are going to lose their jobs.”

Commentary by the NC

There are no national statistics measuring the extent of drug and alcohol use and effects in Irish workplaces, although research has been conducted in relation to apprentices in the construction sector. Legal measures and collective agreements relating to issues like testing procedures tend to focus on certain sectors, notably the transport and defence sectors. There are also general guidelines covering testing provided by the Health and Safety Authority, as well as Ireland’s largest employer association and trade union respectively. However, these guidelines are voluntary and not legally binding.

Tony Dobbins, IRN

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