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LONDON -- Employers may have to beef up policies on alcohol and drug abuse in the workplace if government officials come up with new proposed guidelines on the issue as part of the government's strategy to improve the country's health.
A spokeswoman from the Department of Health confirmed that department officials are "looking at alcohol in the workplace" as one of the options to be included in the government's white paper on Our Healthier Nation, due to be published at the end of the year.
She wouldn't comment on any details.
It is not yet known what requirements, if any, employers would face under the proposals.
Although many of the United Kingdom's largest companies have written policies regarding alcohol use by employees, most small companies have no such guidelines.
"Quite a lot of companies have to think of a policy on the hoof," said a spokesman for Alcohol Concern, a London based-charity that is helping government officials draw up a strategy. Alcohol Concern, which hosted a conference, "Dealing with Substance Misuse in the Workplace," in London on Oct. 12, points out that it is often easier to help an employee deal with a drinking problem than to dismiss that employee.
"Generally, companies are becoming more aware that drink and work don't mix and that there are things they can do to tackle the problem," said the AC spokesman.
A spokesman from the Confederation of British Industry agreed that there is much industry can do to help employees tackle alcohol and drug misuse, but he warned against random testing for alcohol.
"Testing of alcohol should be considered very carefully" because of the detrimental effect it would have on employee relations, the CBI spokesman said.
"Random testing has a role in high-risk industries such as transport but should not be adopted across the board," the spokesman said.
The approach of U.K. companies to alcohol abuse varies greatly, said Tom Jones, a partner in the London-based personal injury law firm of Thompsons.
"The bigger companies tend to have policies, and some even have systems, to put employees into treatment and to hold their hand through recovery, whereas the smaller companies often have no policy," said Mr. Jones.
Mr. Jones believes that the problem of alcohol and drug abuse will become a greater issue for employers in the future, as stress caused by the workplace continues to become an issue.
"Employers are going to have to face the facts that if they are the cause of pressure which leads to stress and to alcohol abuse, then they have a legal responsibility," he explained.
"Every employer has a responsibility toward the health and safety of its employees and a vicarious responsibility to employees injured in an accident caused as a result of another employee under the influence of alcohol," Mr. Jones said.
"Employers will need to have a strategy to deal with alcohol problems, and (firing) is not one of them," said Mr. Jones.
Although some U.K. employers have strict policies prohibiting consumption or possession of alcohol and drugs, testing is rarely used by U.K. companies.