Final Questionnaire for EWCO CAR on Use of Alcohol/Drugs at the Workplace

  • Observatory: EurWORK
  • Topic:
  • Published on: 03 May 2012

United Kingdom
Helen Newell

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.

The Government estimates that 1.6 million people in the UK have mild, moderate or severe alcohol dependence and more than 10 million people regularly drink above government guidelines. Similarly, drug use remains high in the UK. Whilst there is little research evidence to link drugs and alcohol to work impairment employers are nevertheless seeking to introduce policies to manage the effects of drug and alcohol misuse in the workplace. Rather than seeing drug use as a health and safety issue, research suggests that many employers view this as disciplinary issue and a growing minority of employers have introduced random drug testing at the workplace.


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 survey sources that provide information on the prevalence of drug/alcohol use at the workplace in the UK. There are annual statistical reports on drug/ alcohol use in the general UK population which provide data by age group. The British Crime Survey, prepared by the Home Office is an annual household survey of the general adult population aged 16-59 years. The survey has a response rate of 69%. Data are weighted to ensure figures reflect the age and sex distribution of the population under study.

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 2007 Norwich Union Healthcare (one of the UK’s largest providers of income protection and private medical insurance) conducted research amongst approximately 250 businesses from across the UK and amongst 1,958 adults on alcohol use and its impact on the workplace. (Now known as Aviva).

In 2007 the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) carried out a survey (‘Managing drug and alcohol misuse at work’) of 9,993 people management specialists in the UK. There were a total of 503 usable replies, giving a very low response rate of just over 5%, although the represented organisations employ more than 1.1 million people. The survey included 40 questions on the policies and procedures organisations have in place to manage drug/alcohol misuse at work.

In 2004 the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) commissioned research aimed at establishing the prevalence of illegal drug use in a representative sample of the UK working population. A multi-method approach was adopted including a community based questionnaire survey and a cohort study of workers carrying out cognitive performance tasks. ‘The scale and impact of illegal drug use by workers’ (Smith, A., Wadsworth, E., Moss, S., and Simpson, S.)

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

Drug Use

Although falling steadily, drug use in the general population in the UK remains high. The 2010/11 British Crime Survey’s key findings include:

  • 8.8% of adults (16-59 year olds) used illicit substances in the last year (almost 3 million people). This figure peaked at 12.3% in 2003/04; ;

  • Amongst 16-24 year olds the figure was 20.4% (around 1.4 million people)

  • Illicit drug use was highest amongst the age group 16-19 year olds;

  • Cannabis use has continued to fall from its peak in 2002/03. 6.8% of 16-59 year olds tried cannabis in the last year compared to 6.6% in 2009/10. However, 17.1% of 16-24 year olds tried cannabis in the last year compared to 16.1% in 2009/10.

The Smith et al. survey (2004) found that 13% of working respondents reported drug use in the previous 12 months. However, the rate varied considerably with age, from 3% of those who were 50 or above to 29% of those under 30. Drug use was found to be associated with a number of demographic factors, but most strongly linked to smoking and heavy drinking in that order.

Alcohol Use

The Government’s Drug Strategy (2010) estimates that 1.6 million people in the UK have mild, moderate or severe alcohol dependence and more than 10 million people now regularly drink above the guidelines set by Government.

According to the Norwich Union (2007) survey one third (32%) of employees reported having been to work with a hangover and 15% reported having been drunk at work. One in 10 employees said that this happened at least once a month, while one in 20 said it happened once a week. One fifth of people working in construction and 15% of those working in wholesale and agriculture went to work hung over once a week.

There is no recent research in the UK relating to the transport and construction sectors. The highest risks of death related to alcohol are found in bar staff and publicans, other catering professionals and entertainers, hairdressers and barbers, seafarers, butchers and labourers. (Romeri, E., Baker, A. & Griffiths, C. (2007) (Alcohol-Related Deaths by Occupation, 2001-2005 Health Statistics Quarterly 35, autumn; Office for National Statistics). The TUC has also identified teaching as an occupation where increasing stress levels have led to a number of employees turning to drink and drugs in an attempt to cope.

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…)

Studies in the UK have repeatedly highlighted the paucity and low quality of data available on this issue. The TUC has called for the government to fund research looking at the extent of the misuse of alcohol by individuals at work, its effect on the work place and its cost to the nation.

According to Parker (2008) the HSE estimates that up to 14 million working days are lost each year due to alcohol-related problems in the workplace, costing British industry an estimated GBP 2 billion (about €2.67 billion as at 6 February 2008) each year.

According to the Norwich Union study (2007) of those employees who had a hangover or had been drunk at work, 85% confirmed that it had affected their performance at work in a number of ways:

  • 36% of employees found it hard to concentrate

  • 35% of employees found they were less productive

  • 42% felt tired to the point of being very sleepy

  • 24% did the minimum amount of work and went home as soon as possible

  • Nearly one in 10 made lots of mistakes which they needed to rectify.

  • 61% of people working in manufacturing and 41% in construction roles said that they found it hard to concentrate with a hangover.

  • A third of construction workers and nearly a quarter in manufacturing admitted that they make lots of mistakes that they needed to rectify the following day.

  • More than half of employees (54%) thought that their bosses and colleagues noticed a change in their productivity as a result of drinking

  • A quarter (24%) said that they have felt embarrassed about something they had said or done in front of their boss and colleagues after drinking.

  • 77% of employers believed that alcohol was the number one threat to employee well-being and that it encouraged sickness absence.

A CBI survey (‘Healthy Returns? Absence and workplace Health Survey’ 2011) revealed employer concern about the relationship between alcohol and work absence. Almost a fifth of employers (19% for manual workers and 17% for non-manual workers) believed that employees’ personal problems – involving for example drink, drugs and relationship difficulties – were among the major causes of absence. However, employers had not undertaken any return to work interviews to identify what lay behind the employee’s absence.

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

There are no specific health and safety laws dealing with drugs/alcohol at work in the UK. Under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 employers have a general duty to ensure the health, safety and welfare of employees and to develop a health and safety policy. The Management of Health and safety at Work Regulations (1999) require employers to conduct risk assessments if the presence of drugs/ alcohol at work appears to be a risk to workers and to then implement preventative measures.

It is a criminal offence under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 for any person knowingly to permit the production, supply or use of controlled substances on their premises except in specified circumstances (such as when they have been prescribed by a doctor). The Medicines Act of 1968 also controls the sale of drugs that are considered medicines.

Under the Road Traffic Act (1988) and the Transport and Works Act (1992), drivers of road vehicles must not be under the influence of drugs or alcohol while driving, while attempting to drive or when they are in charge of a vehicle. Certain rail, tram and other guided-transport system workers must not be unfit through drugs or alcohol while working on the system. The operator of such a system must exercise all due diligence to avoid those workers being unfit.

Under Section 93(1) of the Railways and Transport Safety Act 2003 it is an offence to perform or prepare to perform certain aviation-related functions with more than a prescribed level of alcohol in the body. Section 92 makes it an offence to perform an aviation function or an ancillary activity whilst impaired through alcohol or drugs.

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

There is no direct legislation on drug testing in the UK and important legal questions depend upon the interpretation in the courts of a whole range of legal provisions.

Under the Human Rights Act 1998 everyone has the right to respect for his private and family life, his home and his correspondence everyone has the right to be protected from cruel and degrading treatment, which could have implications for the legality of drug testing at work. The Data Protection Act 1998 places limits on the processing of personal data, placing responsibility on any organisation that holds personal data to process the information that it holds in a fair and proper way. An employer could also be liable to prosecution under anti-discrimination laws for targeting drug testing at a particular group or for implementing drug testing in a discriminatory way.

Some employers reserve the contractual right to test their staff as, for example, in the employment contract of those working on the rail transport system. Employers need employees’ consent before testing them for drugs or alcohol. However, if an employee refuses when the employer has good grounds for testing under a proper occupational health and safety policy, he or she may face disciplinary action, which may lead to dismissal.

There is no mandatory UK regulation of drug testing services or test kit manufacturers. However, in the rail industry there is an industry supplier qualification scheme called ‘Link Up’ that consists of a strict audit to ensure that specific standards for service provision are being observed. Taking a urine sample remains the most common means of testing for drugs, although oral swabs, which may be considered less intrusive, are an alternative. For alcohol testing, breathalysers are commonly used. When testing employers should follow a chain of custody procedure to guarantee the identity and integrity of the sample from when it is taken to the point that results are given. The Employment Practices Data Protection Code which aims to help employers comply with the Data Protection Act and to encourage good practice advises employers:

  • To be sure that the benefits of testing justify any adverse impact, unless the testing is required by law;

  • To minimise the amount of personal information obtained through drug and alcohol testing;

  • To ensure the criteria used for selecting workers for testing are justified, properly documented, adhered to and communicated to workers;

  • To confine the obtaining of information through random testing to those workers who are employed to work in safety-critical activities;

  • To gather information through testing designed to ensure safety at work rather than any other purpose;

  • To ensure that workers are fully aware that the drug or alcohol testing is taking place and of the possible consequences of being tested;

  • To ensure that information obtained through testing is of sufficient technical quality to support any decisions or opinions that are derived from it.

Company Policies on Drug Testing

The CIPD survey (2007) indicated that 65% of firms did not test for drugs and alcohol and had no intention of starting to test. However, the proportion that does test has risen from 18% of firms in 2001 to 22% of firms in 2007. A further 9% planned to introduce some form of testing. Among those who do test, random testing is rare. Almost four out of ten manufacturing and production organisations will test when individual behaviour or performance suggests they’re under the influence of drugs or alcohol and about a third will conduct post-incident testing. Nearly 30% of manufacturing and production employers will test pre-employment and a fifth conduct random testing. About 40% of safety-critical organisations conduct post-incident testing and 35% test pre-employment for drugs/alcohol. About 27% safety-critical employers conduct random testing for alcohol and 20% random testing for drugs. Of those organisation that have some employee groups in safety-critical occupations 22% post-incident test for alcohol and 20% post incident test for drugs. In all 14% of employers in this category conduct pre-employment testing and a similar proportion random test.

The TUC is critical of testing at work, saying that checks on staff are unable to determine whether a person is under the influence of drugs. They argue that employers who are serious about the welfare of their staff and removing drugs from the workplace should develop a comprehensive policy which supports staff and have warned that some employers may be using random drug testing to get rid of employees and avoid redundancy pay.

The CIPD survey (2007) confirms that firms are much more willing to take disciplinary action than they are to provide affected workers with support:

  • Thirty one per cent of employers said that they had dismissed employees in the previous two years due to alcohol problems

  • 13% had fired a worker for drug misuse.

  • Only half of the employers gave access to counselling for workers fighting dependencies on drink and drugs, with just over twenty eight per cent offering co-ordinated rehabilitation;

  • Only 1/3 of employers train managers in how to manage these sorts of issues.

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.

Following widespread consultation, on December 8th 2010 the Government launched a new drug strategy, ‘Reducing demand, restricting supply, building recover: supporting people to live a drug-free life’.

The emphasis of this strategy is on the negative effect drugs have on communities, families and individuals. The emphasis in relation to employment is in helping people to move off state benefits and into work, rather than a focussing on problems within the work place. The new strategy puts more responsibility on individuals to seek help to overcome dependency. The government states that all services commissioned under the new strategy should have 8 best practices in mind:

  • Freedom from dependence on drugs and alcohol

  • Prevention of drug related deaths and blood borne virsuses

  • A reduction in crime and re-offending

  • Sustained employment

  • The ability to access and sustain suitable accommodation

  • Improvement in mental and physical health and wellbeing

  • Improved relationships with family members, partners and friends

  • The capacity to be an effective and caring parent

However, central government will not seek to prescribe the approaches that should be taken in delivering these outcomes, but will instead take a central role in carrying out research to develop and publish an evidence base as to ‘what works’ and in promoting the sharing of best practice. What the strategy will mean in practice thus remains to be seen.

Commentary by the NC

Although patterns of drug misuse are changing, drug and alcohol use in the UK remains high. Despite this, there is still a lack of research evidence into their impact. The inclusion of drug and alcohol policies as part of an organisations’ disciplinary policy and the failure to provide adequate training to managers on drug and alcohol related issues are clearly of concern as is the confusing and complicated legal situation surrounding drug testing. The TUC’s call for further research into the extent of the misuse of drugs and alcohol by individuals at work and its effect on the work place is clearly well made.

Helen Newell, IRRU


Useful? Interesting? Tell us what you think. Hide comments

Add new comment