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Alcohol testing at work

There is a new alcohol testing device which could prove whether an employee has turned up for work under the influence of alcohol.

The AlcoSense device uses fingerprints and can give results in about eight seconds as to whether a person has alcohol in their system or not. It uses infra-red to measure alcohol intoxication “without breath or bodily fluids”. It is already in use in the USA and it is hoped that eventually it will come into widespread use in the UK, where, surveys estimate, about 14m working days are lost to hangovers, absenteeism or alcohol related illnesses every year.

Some industries, such as rail and maritime for instance, already have mandatory drug and alcohol testing as a regulatory requirement, while some also want to see a full contractual health and safety policy to help guard against drug and alcohol abuse. The policy may already be set out in an employee’s contract of employment or staff handbook which might also explain the disciplinary sanctions that could follow if you happen to fail such a test.

Failing a test 

  • At the present time employers generally would want to test someone only if they were concerned over their poor work performance, possible damaged client relations, absenteeism and if their suspected problem was having an impact on staff cover.
  • Employees who refuse to take a test when their employer has good reason to test them run the risk of dismissal. Refusal would certainly damage their chances of making a successful claim if their case went to an employment tribunal which would consider whether the action taken against the worker by the firm for refusing to take a test fell within the reasonable range of responses.
  • At the present time, it is likely that an employment tribunal would rule such a dismissal was fair and justified if there was sufficient evidence that alcohol or drug use was affecting a worker’s performance at work. However, it does have to be based on firm evidence and not just a vague feeling that alcohol may be the cause.
  • There is of course a balance to be struck. Though employers may see it as another tool by which to judge productivity and safety at work, the workers’ rights to privacy are also important. There is an argument that alcohol testing in the workplace is contrary to Article 8 of the European Convention of Human Rights, which enshrines the right to “respect for private and family life”. However, employees wanting to rely on this should note it is a qualified right, not an absolute one.
  • Employers are already under a duty to provide a safe working environment under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974. Under this legislation there is a warning that staff are not allowed to work when they are under the influence of illegal drugs or alcohol.


Whatever the law at the present time, a fingerprint device which can check a person’s alcohol or drug intake in seconds does take testing of staff onto a new level. To protect themselves most employers would have to make sure that any testing complies with the highest standards and uses a fully accredited, professional and independent service provider. It is not yet known of course whether this type of testing will catch on, nor is it known, though it can perhaps be predicted, what news of this testing may do to staff morale.