Allowing alcohol at work functions? Be aware of the risks.

A health and safety expert warns of significantly increased risk to employers who allow alcohol at work functions.  This is due to a combination of new drink driving rules, and the tougher new Health and Safety at Work Act that is on the way to becoming law.

On 1 December new legislation will significantly lower breath and blood alcohol limits for adult drivers.   This creates greater risks for employers who allow employees and guests to drink at work (e.g. after-work drinks, business lunches, etc.) or at work functions such as Christmas parties and social events.

The Land Transport Amendment Act (No. 2) 2014 will reduce the drink-driving limits for adult drivers aged 20 years and over from 400 micrograms (mcg) of alcohol per litre of breath, to 250mcg. The limit per 100 ml of blood will reduce from 80mg, to 50mg. The zero alcohol limit for drivers under the age of 20 years is unchanged.

Employers who either provide or permit alcohol consumption at work functions could be held liable if employees or guests are subsequently harmed as a result. 

Katherine Percy, Chief Executive at health and safety development organisation Workbase, says these changes will become even more significant once the new Health and Safety at Work Act becomes law in the first half of 2015 because it will further increase employers’ responsibilities to manage the risks when making alcohol available to employees or allowing them to drink at work functions.

The new regulations will require directors, owners and managers (who are duty holders with influence and control over the business) to know about all of their business’s operational risks and hazards, and how they are being managed. 

“This means duty holders will need to proactively identify all relevant alcohol-related risks and hazards; identify everyone’s health and safety responsibilities in relation to serving and consuming alcohol, and engage with employees to make sure that the organisation’s alcohol policies and processes are understood – and correctly applied – by all managers, supervisors, frontline workers and contractors,” says Ms Percy.

“The new health and safety regulations may be months away but employers are advised to use the upcoming drink-drive law change as an opportunity to start making longer term preparations for more robust practices in relation to alcohol.”

She suggests the following tips for employers to reduce the risks associated with the new law:

1.    Review policies to make sure that any stated alcohol limits are in keeping with the new law’s requirements.

2.    Understand the business’s health and safety obligations in relation to alcohol and put steps in place to close any gaps.

3.    Make employees aware of the new law.  Educate them about safe drinking, including that blood alcohol levels continue to rise for up to two hours after drinking stops. 

4.    Advise people about the dangers of using the number of drinks consumed as a drink-driving limit guideline.   There are many variables, including alcohol strengths differing widely between types of beverages.  Furthermore, pour sizes can differ, which makes it difficult to accurately judge alcohol consumption.  For example, a standard glass of wine is 100 ml but people typically pour more and still regard that as “one” glass.

5.    Educate employees that each person’s individual factors (e.g. body weight, health conditions, medications, metabolism, etc.) also significantly affect their body’s alcohol absorption rates.

6.    Put host responsibility practices in place, including processes for identifying people who are drinking too much and stopping further alcohol from becoming available to them.

7.    Always provide substantial food when alcohol is served, to slow down alcohol absorption and consumption (peanuts and crisps are not enough).    Provide a choice of interesting, adult-appropriate non-alcoholic options (think beyond fizzy drink and orange juice!).

8.    Encourage people to plan ahead and organise a ride home if they are likely to be drinking.  Alternatively, provide taxi chits or other transport options.

Ms Percy says some organisations try to remove the guesswork by providing breath-testing at functions.  This is a double-edged sword because although it can alert someone if they are over the limit, it can also serve to provide a ‘goal’ for people to drink up to.

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