Picture: ISTOCK
Picture: ISTOCK

Christmas decorations are up in stores, reminding us that the year is drawing to a close. Whether or not businesses choose to shut down over the December period, most businesses choose to throw their annual year-end staff parties between now and year end. For many companies, this is an opportunity for all staff members to get together to celebrate the highs and lows of the year, for staff to be rewarded for their efforts, and to generally eat, drink and be merry. 

Year-end functions are celebrations and, typically, alcohol is freely available. While this means staff are able to let their hair down and over-imbibe, it also means many people are intoxicated before they get behind the wheel of a car.

Rules and regulations

The Occupational Health and Safety Act — and most company policies — forbid alcohol consumption and drunkenness on work premises during working hours, however, there are no such rules for after-hours parties, especially at off-site premises where most year-end functions are held.

Due to this, not many businesses make provision for their staff to get home after an office party where alcohol is imbibed. The results can be detrimental, with some staff never making it home due to an alcohol-related incident.

The onus is on the individual to practise safe driving habits and avoid consuming too much alcohol at parties. However, people tend to get caught up in the celebratory mood and, after a few beers or glasses of wine, safety concerns fly out of the window.

What are the risks?

Although businesses are not legally obligated to ensure the safety of their staff once they’ve left the premises, it’s in their best interests to try to make such provisions, if only because attendance at these events are typically considered mandatory and staff are often expected to partake in consuming alcohol as freely as are the food.

Apart from the moral obligation towards staff, looking at the risks objectively, businesses can be negatively impacted in an operational sense if staff drive home intoxicated: it costs more to replace staff, whether temporarily or permanently, than to look after existing employees properly.

Showing appreciation for staff by providing them with an all-expenses-paid event is a wonderful concept, however, businesses should be protecting their staff, too, and this means taking care of them after the event in whatever capacity they can.

What can businesses do?

Many businesses arrange shuttle services for their staff between the function venue and a central drop-off area, usually their offices. However, this still means that staff need to get home on their own steam, and not enough time has passed between the venue and the drop-off area for staff to realistically sober up.

There are a few options businesses can consider for their staff:

• Provide alternative transport — businesses can contract app-based transport services such as Uber, Taxify, or other private transport services to transport staff from their homes to the function, and back.

• Transport subsidies — businesses can purchase taxi service vouchers, such as Uber vouchers, to subsidise their staff transport, allowing staff to pay for the remaining amount themselves, if applicable. They can also offer to reimburse all or a portion of their staff’s chosen transport method.

• Sober incentives — businesses can incentivise some or all of their staff to stay sober and act as official designated drivers, safely seeing home those who over-imbibe.

• Keys back on sobriety — businesses can agree with staff members to take possession of their car keys at the start of the event, and only hand them back if the employee passes a breathalyser test. Those who pass can be safely entrusted to see themselves home, while they can arrange transport for those who don’t.

Regardless of the chosen option, businesses should take care to keep their staff informed of the risks of drunk driving. They can provide educational material on the legal blood alcohol limit and encourage staff to act responsibly wherever possible. By making disposable breathalysers available for self-testing at the event, businesses are able to provide their staff with the means to take responsibility for their actions. 

Company culture plays a large part in encouraging responsible drinking. Peer-pressure drinking in the form of “fines” and insistence on drinking shots is common practice in many businesses. While it may be “all in the name of fun”, it can encourage reckless behaviour and should only be culturally practised when businesses have taken the appropriate measures to adequately protect their staff.

In conclusion, the silly season may be upon us and should be celebrated with enthusiasm and fun — but businesses are cautioned to take care of their people, so their people can continue to take care of them.

• Evans is director at ALCO-Safe.