By Rhys Evans

ALCO-Safe director Rhys Evans sheds light on the zero tolerance used by many employers at the workplace.

Businesses take different approaches to alcohol tolerance at the workplace. The Occupational Health & Safety (OHS) Act dictates many of the rules that businesses implement, including disallowing any person who is or appears to be under the influence of alcohol or drugs to enter or remain at the workplace, among others.

Due to this, and for various reasons pertinent to the industry or business itself, many companies have employed a zero tolerance policy towards alcohol and drugs. However, the concept of ‘zero tolerance’ is widely misunderstood.

What is ‘zero tolerance’?

A zero-tolerance policy towards alcohol and drugs means that employees may not be permitted to work if they are found to have any trace of alcohol or drugs in their system, when tested. It does not mean that a company will immediately fire an employee that tests positive for alcohol and drugs.

A zero-tolerance policy should not be promoted as a punitive measure, rather it should be seen as necessary for the health and safety of all employees working for the organisation. Many employees live in fear of a zero tolerance policy, partly because the policy is not explained properly to employees and partly because of a lack of education around drugs and alcohol. Employees assume that if they have a drink and alcohol is discovered in their bloodstream, they will be fired or face disciplinary action. This is not necessarily the case.

The truth about zero tolerance and disciplinary action

Businesses still need to follow due process and, if the person is a first offender and has traces of alcohol in their system, they are often simply told to go home and return the next day.

Many businesses also assist such as rehab and / or counselling, if the employee is a repeat offender and often found to be intoxicated when entering the work place.

The business end of zero tolerance

Beyond following due process, businesses need to back up their zero tolerance policy in several ways. It’s important that if they employ such a policy, they communicate the details of the policy to all staff clearly, properly and frequently. Employees need to understand their limitations, rights, responsibilities and what the processes are should they violate the policy in any way.

Businesses will need to undertake regular alcohol and drug testing, as well as communicate this intention and the testing process to employees. Employees need to understand the reasons and repercussions for being tested. However, it’s also vital that employees feel assured that their privacy will not be violated – businesses should conduct testing privately or, failing that, communicate their findings and resulting actions to the responsible employee in privacy, away from colleagues.

Businesses should engage closely with Human Resource (HR) experts, their local labour unions and alcohol education programmes to ensure they follow the right courses of action to back up their zero tolerance policy.

What employees need to know

There are some instances where alcohol and drug related incidents can be an immediate fireable offense. For example, if it contravenes any law, such as an employee being in possession of an illegal substance or if the employee is intoxicated enough to cause damage to property or another person. In such instances, a business may involve the police and lay formal charges to support their dismissal of the offender.

Beyond such extreme circumstances, however, employees should know that they aren’t forbidden to drink at all in their personal lives. It’s important for employers to educate their employees on how alcohol is measured and how long it takes to leave their bloodstream enabling them to understand their limits. This allows them to know when they may drink and how much, giving them the trust to act responsibly. This varies from person to person, depending on their weight and how many units of alcohol they have consumed. If they understand this, they know how much they may drink and when, to ensure they have no alcohol in their system when they get to work. In general, it is assumed that it takes the human body about an hour for the liver to digest one beer (330ml) with a volume of 5% alcohol.

A zero tolerance policy should not be a terrifying prospect but should rather be seen as one which can benefit both the business and its employees, reducing risk for the former while protecting the health and best interests of the latter.