Drunk workers shown the door thanks to this unmanned breathalyser test

The unmanned breathalyser developed by ALCO-Safe.
The unmanned breathalyser developed by ALCO-Safe.

A locally developed unmanned breathalyser unit not only prevents intoxicated workers from entering the workplace, it also helps avoid conflict with security guards. 

The breathalyser was developed by Pretoria-based drug- and alcohol-screening product developer ALCO-Safe and 50 units are already operational, mainly at coal mines in Mpumalanga as well as factories in Johannesburg and Brits.

It can be fitted at the turnstiles where workers enter the premises where they have to blow into the breathalysers. If their alcohol levels are too high, they are denied access.

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According to Rhys Evans, managing director of ALCO-Safe, the units have been effective in preventing workers from entering workplaces where being intoxicated poses a serious safety hazard, such as mines and factories.

"Compulsory alcohol testing is often put into place in hazardous industries such as mining, manufacturing and transport as a safety measure. However, there are certain challenges with the typical approach of using a manned breathalyser.

"Security personnel administering the tests often live in the same communities as the workers they are being asked to police, and this is problematic on a number of levels.

"Those being tested are often resentful, and if they have in fact been drinking frequently, resort to physical violence against the guards. Utilising an unmanned breathalyser system that can be integrated into access control or time-and-attendance solutions solves this issue," says Evans. 

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High level of alcohol abuse

Evans told News24 alcohol abuse is quite problematic among blue-collar workers, especially among migrant workers who live in settlements close where they work, away from their families. 

"I depends on the location. At one mine, you might have two or three workers who show up for work drunk. But we had one mine where, during the December period, 200 to 300 workers would come to work drunk. That is an astonishing number." 

According to Evans, the Operational Health and Safety (OHS) Act mandates a zero-tolerance approach to intoxication or the consumption of alcohol in the workplace. Consequently, many organisations implement compulsory alcohol testing before workers are permitted entry, but this is not always effective because of "the human element".

"The security guards doing the testing are seen as the 'bad guys' and those being tested often threaten or actually physically harm the guards once they are away from the safety of the workplace. This is a clear case of 'shooting the messenger' since the guards are simply doing their jobs, but the prevalence of such violence is high.

"Even if they are not physically harmed, the guards may be socially ostracised and isolated, which causes numerous other issues," says Evans.  

Threats and intimidation

These threats and intimidation not only create an unpleasant working environment for security personnel, they also negatively impact the effectiveness of the testing policies.

"Under threat, or following bribery, security personnel may not report all of the positive tests they come across. This means that intoxicated workers may be permitted access, with the knock-on negative effects on the safety of all on site.

"Even in an ideal world without the threat of violence, manual breathalyser tests can be prone to human error. Security personnel must be trusted to conduct the test properly each and every time, and they may be distracted or busy, people may slip through, or the tests may not be performed accurately."

rhys evans

Rhys Evans (Supplied)

Evans says these problems can be overcome by using unmanned breathalysers. They prevent access to drunk workers and can even, if needed, be used to keep a record of regular drunk attendance by being fitted with a camera. 

In addition, workers that suspect that they could be intoxicated can "test" their alcohol levels by using a separate unit fitted outside the work premises. "They can then decide to take a day's leave and go home before they reach the turnstiles," says Evans. 

"It takes about an hour for one unit of alcohol to leave your body. So, if you have 12 beers the night before and show up for work at 07:00, the chances of there being alcohol in your system is quite high." 

Asked what prevents workers from getting a sober colleague to blow into the unit, Evans said: "There are surveillance systems such as CCTV cameras that will pick it up, and it is unlikely that you will commit a dismissible offence for a drunk colleague." 

Evans says the response to the unmanned units has been very positive.

"With an unmanned breathalyser solution in place, compulsory testing is integrated into access control through a simple plug-and-play interface. No changes to policy are required, the wellbeing of security guards is improved, and the safe working conditions of all workers can be improved on all levels."

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