Alcohol abuse in the workplace is not tolerated

South Africa is not the only country with a silent scourge eroding the foundation of its economy. In fact, the world over, alcohol consumption has been reported to have far-reaching consequences on individuals of all ages, families, communities and on the economy at large. The alcohol industry is a booming one and South African’s will remember the shock and disdain experienced by drinkers during the nationwide lockdown, when the government outlawed the sale of alcohol because of the Covid-19 pandemic, sending the sales of pineapples and yeast to new and unprecedented levels.

Alcohol abuse is a silent killer which has brutal consequences for many who find themselves under its spell as it has been proven to be a major factor underlying criminal behaviour, traffic fatalities for both pedestrians and drivers, increased violent behaviour, including Gender-based violence and child abuse, depression and more. The effect that this has on the economy is incalculable. And it doesn’t just remain a problem during non-working hours.

Employers can be held responsible for the health of safety of their staff if they fail to put measures in place to ensure that alcohol in the workplace is not tolerated. While each workplace has its own unique culture and can differ substantially, employers all have one mandate: they must abide by the regulations of the Occupational Health and Safety Act, No. 85 of 1993 (OHSA) which specifies that the employer must not allow any person, employed or otherwise, to enter or remain in the workplace if they appear to be under the influence of alcohol, or if they are in the possession of, or partaking of or sharing alcohol. Failure to do so, may result in devastating consequences for both employee and employer alike.

All companies, regardless of nature, sector and size, should implement a policy wherein they indicate the level of tolerance of employees who are found to be intoxicated or under the influence of alcohol, while performing their work duties, regardless of the type of work they perform. Employers who tolerate consumption of alcohol due to the nature of the job (infamous for this are Sales positions which often require “wining and dining” to win over a client) can still be held liable, for example, if their employee leaves a social work event and experiences an accident on their way home. Any company in which heavy machinery is operated, or where employees drive a vehicle as a result of their job function, must be informed that they are the ones who will be held responsible should the employee operate that vehicle or machinery, while under the influence, as it has been found at the CCMA that it is not the employee’s responsibility to ensure sobriety, but the employers.

Employers must also be aware of the difference between misconduct and incapacity when it comes to dealing with employees who have been found under the influence. Employers who do not dig a little deeper in an effort to identify patterns of behaviour which may indicate a substance abuse problem in their employees, and who take disciplinary action against their employees which results in summary dismissal, may be held liable in the long run due to their lack of knowledge. Employers must be informed and guided by the Company Code of Good Practice Schedule 8 of the Labour Relations Act No 66 of 1995, as amended, when distinguishing between misconduct or incapacity in the workplace, and act accordingly.