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Alcohol abuse in the workplace

Alcohol is the most used drug in Australia, with approximately 35% of the population aged 14 and over drinking alcohol at least once a week. There has been a 7.4% increase in alcohol-related deaths in Australia since 2020.

Alcohol costs Australian businesses an estimated $3.5 billion annually in lost productivity and puts the health and safety of everyone at work at risk. 

In this article, we provide you with an overview of alcohol, its effects, the impact of alcohol in the workplace, and how to manage alcohol abuse at work.

What is alcohol?

Alcohol is the chemical ethanol, which is produced through fermentation and acts as a general central nervous system depressant. 

In a pure state, alcohol is colourless and tasteless. When combined with other ingredients it produces varied colours and tastes, making up the long list of alcoholic beverages in the world. Examples of alcoholic drinks are wine, beer, rum, vodka, and spirits.

As a drink, alcohol is consumed through the mouth and directly absorbed into the bloodstream upon reaching the stomach and small intestine. Alcohol is metabolized by the liver which is why long-term alcoholism can lead to cirrhosis of the liver.

What alcohol does to the body

When a person is under the influence of alcohol, their brain, central nervous system, liver, and heart are affected.

Effects on the body include: 

  • Alcohol impairs many higher brain functions, particularly memory (especially recent memory), executive functions like risk assessment and judgement, and markedly lowers self-restraint leading to uncontrolled impulsive behaviour.
  • Excessive drinking can lead to high blood pressure and greatly increases the risk of heart attacks, strokes and cardiomyopathy.  
  • Alcohol ingestion can lead to progressive destruction of the liver, beginning with fatty-liver through to alcoholic hepatitis and eventually severe irreversible scarring of the liver with cirrhosis.
  • Alcohol adversely affects the pancreas, giving rise to pancreatitis – a severe, painful and potentially life-threatening inflammation of the pancreas.
  • Finally, alcohol can bring about cancer in some parts of the digestive tract, including the mouth, oesophagus, throat, and liver.

The impact of alcohol at work

The impact of alcohol at work is very significant. For one, a worker who has an alcohol problem will most likely be tardy and absent from work. Poor decision-making and loss of efficiency will also affect their job performance, leading to lower productivity.

Workplace alcohol abuse also poses several health and safety risks. Intoxicated employees often have a harder time driving vehicles or operating machinery safely, which leaves them more vulnerable to workplace accidents and injuries. 

Signs of alcohol abuse

Detecting alcohol abuse in the workplace is never easy, as many problem drinkers make strenuous efforts to cover up their addiction. Even signs that may appear to be “obvious” evidence of alcohol abuse may instead be indicators of problems or issues other than alcohol abuse.

Signs and symptoms of alcohol abuse may include: 

  • Unkempt appearance, often bloodshot eyes
  • Smell of alcohol on breath and skin
  • Bloodshot eyes
  • Excessive tiredness, especially at the commencement of a shift or in the morning – occasionally even sleeping on duty
  • Unsteady gait or staggering, atypical clumsiness – and in bad cases, tremors
  • Tardiness, and sluggishness/sow responses
  • Inability to follow or understand work instructions
  • Recurrent forgetfulness, especially of recent instructions or events
  • Absenteeism including a rise in sick leaves
  • Mood swings – often accompanied by irascibility, aggressive behaviour and temper outbursts. If the person is markedly drunk, behaviour is often irrational.

What to do about alcohol at work

The best way to address alcohol at workplace concerns is to develop and establish a clear and well-thought-out drug and alcohol policy and procedure for the workplace.

Such a policy needs to include stipulations for a drug and alcohol testing program. Employers can use these stipulations to find out if one of their workers is impaired by alcohol while at work. 

Alcohol testing

The three methods for detecting alcohol are:

  • Breathalyser testing – Breathalysers deliver almost instant results. A handheld breathalyser can detect a person’s overall blood alcohol and intoxication level.  
  • Oral fluid (saliva) drug testing – The most convenient and least invasive method for alcohol testing.  
  • Urine drug testing – Capable of detecting alcohol in the urine for up to two days after its consumption. 

Learn more

Safework Health can help you develop a comprehensive alcohol-safe workplace program for your business.

Contact us today for a confidential discussion.


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