Should Companies Test Their Employees for Alcohol Abuse?

With alcohol having legal status as an intoxicant, workplace testing for alcohol use isn’t as clear-cut as illicit drug testing (which isn’t that clear-cut, either).

What is legal in one state is verboten in another, making laws about alcohol testing in the workplace a veritable minefield across the country that can cause problems for those who are unprepared and even those who think they are prepared.

Alcohol Prevalence

However, considering the numbers on alcohol abuse, it could be worth the effort for some companies to test for it. According to the 2013 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 65.8% of full-time employed adults aged 18 or older drank, while 30.5% said they had engaged in binge drinking within the past month. Among the 58.5 million adults who were binge drinkers, 44.5 million (76.1%) were employed either full- or part-time. Among the 16.2 million adults who were heavy drinkers, 12.4 million (76%) were employed.

“If a workplace does not have a comprehensive drug testing program that includes alcohol testing then they are subjecting their workplace to the potential of more accidents, more disability claims, more injuries on the job, and more harassment claims just because they do not have a comprehensive testing program,” said Gus Stieber, director of clinical outreach services at Kiva Recovery.

Stieber says if a company is not testing for drugs and alcohol, but their competition is, their competition is going to be in a better position to snap up qualified employees.

However, simply enacting an alcohol testing policy is no simple task, particularly with alcohol being a legal substance.

Pros and Cons of Alcohol Testing at The Workplace

Alcohol testing has emerged as an important tool for businesses and workplaces, but it may go either way.

Advantages

  • Reduced Costs: According to figures from SAMHSA, as much $134 billion is wasted by those who abuse alcohol each year. Conducting alcohol testing and maintaining an alcohol policy reduces the amount of wasted money by removing the problem.
  • Less Sick Leave and Workman’s Compensation Claims: As many as 7% of employees in the U.S. drink while on the job. Many people are affected by hangovers and alcohol use before work this causes there to be more accidents while these employees are working and more sick days called in when they stay home. Both of these things cost an employer far more than should be necessary. 
  • Fewer on the Job Problems: More than half of the problems that arise at work are caused by heavy drinkers and as much as 87% of those problems are caused by light and moderate drinkers dealing with hangovers. With fewer distractions, there will be fewer mistakes.
  • Alcohol Testing is Inexpensive and Easy to Conduct:  There are fewer overall costs involved with alcohol testing and it can be customized to suit the needs of the employer and those the company hires. While breath and saliva alcohol tests are more common, there are also infrared devices that can do the same level of testing without the messy and invasive aspect of collecting bodily fluids.
  • Helps in Hiring Process: Alcohol testing is a smart way of evaluating potential employees and it can help prevent having problems on the job.
  • State Backing in Workman’s Comp Cases: Most states actually encourage employers to conduct alcohol testing in relation to workman’s comp cases and allow these companies to deny compensation to employees who test positive for alcohol consumption.
  • Fewer Employees Who Still Abuse Alcohol: With the addition of a consistent alcohol testing program there will be fewer incidents that involve alcohol-related problems. Employees who are currently abusing the substance will feel more compelled to abstain to avoid having consequences at their job.

Disadvantages

  • Alcohol Consumption is Legal: This can leave an employer wondering if they’ll face more confrontation than they’d like to from their employees because alcohol use is generally condoned and socially accepted.
  • ADA Regulations Can Seem a Deterrent: There are currently some policies that protect employees and this can make it difficult to hold these alcohol abusing employees to the same rules as other employees. It is certainly worth noting that the ADA has no prohibitive regulations against alcohol testing, however.
  • Limited Testing Programs are More Common: Most companies stick to testing for alcohol only when there’s reasonable suspicion or when an accident has occurred and testing is required under federal mandates. Many companies are reluctant to expand on the frequency of testing.
  • Added Cost: Many employers feel that any additional cost to the company will be prohibitive and limit their business. They do not buy into the view that while a new alcohol testing program will require some funding, it will save them in the long run.

Separation

Companies should keep alcohol testing and drug testing policies separate, says Daniel Finerty, a management-side labor and employment attorney with Lindner & Marsack, S.C. in Milwaukee, WS.

“Problems typically arise when an employer’s policy fails to recognize that alcohol is lawful to purchase, possess, transport and consume,” Finerty said.

As a first step toward creating an alcohol testing policy, Finerty recommended companies check for any federal, state and local laws that could potentially affect their proposed policy. To help with this, they should engage the help of a knowledgeable employment lawyer who has experience advising companies.

As an example of the varying laws that companies have to look out for, Finerty points to Illinois, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, Nevada, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Wisconsin, which all have laws to protect people from termination or discipline for alcohol usage (or usage of any lawful product) outside of working hours based on its legal status.

Policy

Once employers know the various laws that will affect it, they can create their policy, which must inform employees:

  • that alcohol testing will be taking place;
  • what circumstances it will take place under (random, reasonable suspicion, etc) and;
  • with a clear limitation on what it means to show up to work under the influence (a blood alcohol content above 0.04, for example).

Supervisors must also be trained on how to administer alcohol tests and how to appropriately assess situations where testing may be deemed necessary, particularly tests administered due to reasonable suspicion.

In extreme cases, an employer may implement a ban on the employee’s off-duty alcohol use, Finerty said. One such case could be if an employee is returning to work after a job-related injury that was caused by alcohol.

Instant Testing

As for using instant alcohol tests like breathalyzers and urine EtG tests, Finerty said, industries that are particularly safety-sensitive could benefit from having them available to use, as they can more readily identify people who may be under the influence and remove them from the workplace.

“If an accident does occur, such tests would be helpful to secure the necessary evidence immediately following an accident (where appropriate) in order to ensure the employee may be lawfully terminated,” Finerty said.

Some industries tend to have more alcohol abuse than others.

“While alcohol abuse can be found in a wide range of industries, it is well known that it is a big problem in mining and construction,” said Joanne Sprecher, CADC and Treatment Consultant at The Discovery House in Southern California. In fact, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration says more than 15 percent of adults in the mining and construction industries had alcohol abuse issues. They are dangerous jobs, made even more so when alcohol is brought into the equation. Other industries that see a high rate of alcohol abuse are the food services and accommodations field, the arts, entertainment and recreation.”

Alcohol Testing

Common types of alcohol testing in the workplace are via instant breath testing, digital breathalyzer, saliva testing, general urine testing and urine EtG testing. Instant breath tests, breathalyzers, saliva tests and general urine tests measure the amount of ethyl alcohol in the body. They can detect alcohol usage immediately after ingestion (or about an hour after for urine) and can detect usage for several hours after alcohol has been consumed.

Urine EtG tests, which can detect alcohol use about an hour after it is consumed, do not test for ethyl alcohol. Instead, they test for the alcohol metabolite ethyl glucuronide, meaning they can detect alcohol usage in urine up to four days after it is consumed.

Regardless of which type of test is used, it’s also imperative to make sure the results are verified by a laboratory.

“Alcohol testing does have its place; however, it cannot be used as the sole means of determining alcohol abuse in the workplace,” Dr. William DePond said. DePond is the COO of Medytox Diagnostics, Inc. “It must be used in concert with lab testing, clinical scenario, and physical findings. Because false positives can be difficult to expunge from an individual’s record, companies also have a responsibility to make sure that they are testing and interpreting accurately and completely.”

The need to be comprehensive with an alcohol testing policy becomes even more important in a situation where the workforce is unionized, Finerty added, as collective bargaining agreements will sometimes have grievance procedures that allow employees to challenge terminations. This puts the burden of proof on the employer.

Helping Employees

Alcohol testing — particularly the EtG urine tests — could play a role in helping people who are in recovery for alcohol abuse, said Bill Heffernan, founder of Employee Resource Systems, which provides employee assistance programs to companies.

The tool that can detect alcohol use within the last 80 hours would be useful in safety-sensitive positions for people who have had a previous positive alcohol test and who are in a ‘last chance’ situation. This would also have the potential for those who are new in recovery who are struggling with staying sober. This becomes an external resource to prevent drinking until their internal resources are sufficiently strong.

In that same vein, Chris Ayala, CEO of smartphone breathalyzer tool and app Alcohoot, said although alcohol testing can be extremely beneficial to companies, it’s important for them to remember that ultimately, catching someone under the influence of alcohol at work could be beneficial to the employee in the long run, which is what the company should focus on.

“If alcohol testing is approached in a manner that is educational and personally rewarding to employees, then it can be highly successful,” Ayala said. “If it becomes a watchdog process where the employer is only out to punish offenders then it becomes an activity that is actively hidden – delaying treatment and raising costs.”

With its legal status, alcohol testing at work continues to be a contentious issue. However, some companies, particularly ones that perform extremely safety-sensitive duties, may want to consider it for their own benefit and the benefit of employees who may be in the clutches of alcohol addiction.


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