Fleet News

Risk management: alcohol abuse


It’s fair to say that drink-driving is largely frowned on by today’s society.

Years of “don’t do it” messages from the Government and safety organisations have ensured that the days of getting trashed and jumping in the car are long gone.

But that doesn’t mean that drink-driving isn’t still a problem.

A survey carried out by YouGov for PruHealth found that each day around 200,000 British workers turn up to work hung over from the night before.

And that affects concentration and the ability to work at normal pace.

Research suggests that there are six million binge drinkers in the UK, and some 75% of alcoholics are in full-time employment.

In fact, a report from the Trades Union Congress found that more people are drinking than ever before – 60% of employers experience problems as a result of staff drinking.

And a report by the Chartered Institute of Personnel Development found that 43% of employers do not have alcohol policies and 84% do not run health awareness programmes for staff.

Employment protection law requires employers to treat dependence as a form of sickness and give the employee the opportunity to overcome the problem.

Many firms now operate workplace alcohol policies to ensure that employees are sober during working hours and to identify and help employees with a drink problem.

Such policies rely on identifying serious levels of alcohol – and, increasingly, other drugs – in employees’ systems.

Some firms have introduced random breath tests, which can tell if an employee is over a pre-determined limit of alcohol content.

But breath tests don’t give employers the bigger picture. Some firms are now opting for hair testing, which analyses employees’ hair and can show their drink and drugs history for months before the sample was taken.

Hair alcohol testing has quickly been adopted by the courts, police and regulatory bodies, where clear-cut evidence of alcohol abuse is required to make a disciplinary decision.

It is also being used in the UK by professions such as commercial aviation, nursing and, increasingly, fleet management.

The test is non-invasive, 100% accurate and helps differentiate between social and excessive drinkers.

There is a network of 450 trained nurses available to collect samples around the country.

Staff can be trained to collect samples.

Samples are generally taken from employees at random or before they join the company at a cost of £395 per test.

A tuft of hair about a centimetre long and the width of a pencil will give a month’s worth of results, which are available in 10 working days from receipt of the sample.

As well as identifying potentially dangerous drivers, the concept of hair testing may have other benefits.

Corporate alcohol policies are being used to reduce private medical insurance

premiums, and proponents of hair testing are working with insurers to try and adopt the same principles with motor insurance premiums.

Trimega Laboratories, one of the leading proponents of alcohol hair testing in the UK, is urging insurers to weigh up the arguments and consider reducing premiums for fleets that undertake such measures.

Avi Lasarow, the firm’s managing director, says: “If you can prove that your drivers are completely non-alcohol-dependent then there is an opportunity for reduced premiums.”

Data from a pilot scheme test of 250 drivers is being compiled in an effort to persuade insurance companies of the business case for slashing costs for fleets that test their drivers.

“If you do a hair test before you recruit someone you can know for sure that your driver has not got a long-term alcohol problem,” Mr Lasarow says.

“From a cost perspective a fleet manager might think ‘this is quite expensive’ but in reality all you need is one or two accidents and that’s a much bigger cost.”

A spokesman for the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA) says: “Some organisations conduct screening tests for alcohol or drug misuse, either on a random basis for all staff, as part of recruitment or if there is a reason to suspect a particular individual may have a problem.

“Screening raises many civil liberties issues and is only likely to be effective if developed in careful consultation with staff and their representatives and makes a demonstrable contribution to reducing risks.

"It should lead to help being provided for anyone with a problem, and be seen as a deterrent rather than a method of ‘catching employees’.

“It is important to ensure that staff are aware that screening may take place and consent to it; therefore, this should be written into contracts of employment, again in consultation with staff and their representatives.”

  • How hair testing works

As the hair grows, it absorbs special markers called fatty acid ethyl esters (FAEEs) and ethyl glucuronide (EtG) into its structure, which remain in the hair indefinitely.

These patented markers are only produced when there is alcohol in the bloodstream, and the more markers there are, the more alcohol the person has consumed.

This method gives a history going back month-by-month or even years if required.

No other method can do this.

An alcoholic’s treatment can be monitored periodically as their hair grows.

A tuft of hair about the diameter of a pencil is required (the standard for the industry is to test a length of 1.5 inches, which provides a 90-day history).

If no head hair is available (employees have been known to shave their heads to avoid detection), body hair can be used.

Bleaches, shampoos and external contaminants have no known impact on the results.

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