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Testing times

10 June 2013

It was with interest that I read the Daily Mail’s news article ‘Companies introduce fingerprint test to see if you are still drunk from the night before when you clock in for a day’s work’ published on April 23rd.

The article was referring to the AlcoSense TruTouch device, a biometric scanner that simultaneously identifies the user and tests for alcohol giving a pass or fail result in under ten seconds. Already in use at a Coca-Cola bottling plant in the US, where there is a culture of drug and alcohol testing in the workplace, it has come to the UK to try to transform workplace attitudes towards alcohol.


In the article, some unions had described alcohol testing in the workplace as "draconian tactics" and "using a sledgehammer to crack a nut" because employers should be trying to help employees with drinking problems, not catching them out.


AlcoSense, which distributes the device, says that the AlcoSense TruTouch is intended for use in safety critical areas where a member of the workforce who is impaired by alcohol could pose a danger to the health and safety of other employees or equipment. AlcoSense managing director Hunter Abbott asked: "Is it better to test staff and stop that one person who may be impaired by alcohol; or not to test anyone and risk injury to the rest of the workforce? This protects staff and management alike from the dangers of workplace alcohol impairment.”


In some European countries, alcohol testing at work has become enshrined in law: in France and Finland, all school buses must have alcohol interlocks installed. As opposed to testing workers for alcohol 'at the gate', alcohol interlocks test remote workers who exhale into a breathalyser-like device that is installed on the dashboard of a vehicle. The device prevents the engine from being started if the worker's alcohol level is over the limit.


While not as widespread in the UK, companies – particularly in the transport and logistics industries such as National Express – use an alcohol interlock system to improve safety and brand reputation, not to mention the bottom line. In the UK, 17 million annual days are lost to alcohol related absence, a  quarter of all workplace accidents result from alcohol and one in three workers under 30 used drugs in the last year. Studies from the US also show that employees using drugs are less productive, take more time off work and are almost four times as likely to have an accident in the workplace.


Statistics aside, medical and safety technology company Draeger says that drug and alcohol testing is becoming a hot topic among employers because of imminent drug-driving legislation.


"If introduced later this year, new drug-driving laws mean that UK police forces will have the ability to test for drugs in saliva,” Steve Wilkinson, account manager (Law Enforcement) at Draeger Safety, says. "Employees caught with certain controlled drugs in their system could face fines, a driving ban or even a jail term. This leaves employers to pick up the pieces, both in terms of cost and/or damage to brand reputation. Introducing a drug and alcohol policy into the workplace could help employers identify potential problems before they escalate.”


So here is another example of an employee's health being not just their wealth but their company's too. As Henry Ford once said: "You can take my business, burn up my building, but give me my people and I'll build the business right back again."