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Disability law can protect alcoholic workers

For the symptoms, not the disease

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Alcoholic workers could receive protection from the Disability Discrimination Act despite the fact that alcoholism is specifically barred from protection, employment experts have said. They say workers could claim protection for the disease's symptoms.

The Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) excludes a number of medical conditions, one of which is alcoholism. But experts have said that employers still need to pay attention to the DDA when dealing with alcoholic workers.

Ashley Graham, an employment law specialist with Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind OUT-LAW.COM, said conditions such as liver disease or depression resulting from alcoholism could be protected.

"The Act is intended to protect people suffering from non-personally induced conditions whereas alcoholism is seen to be on the border," she told technology law podcast OUT-LAW Radio. "If there are any associated conditions, such as depression, that is covered under the DDA."

"The way it works is that you would have a recognised disability and you would be covered by the Disability Discrimination Act, and that would mean that an employer would be prevented from treating you any less favourably and subjecting you to a detriment on the grounds of your disability," she said.

Ben Willmott has just completed a study for the Chartered Institute of Personal Development on companies' treatment of alcohol and drugs related issues. He agrees with Graham's view. "If drinking results in a condition which is covered under the DDA then you are covered under the DDA," he said.

A recent case underlined how careful employers need to be in dealing with cases of drinking and drug use. In a case heard by an employment tribunal, a Mr Sinclair claimed unfair dismissal by Wandsworth Council. He had been dismissed after turning up drunk to work twice.

The tribunal awarded Sinclair damages and reduced them to take account of his culpability in turning up to work. That reduction was only 25 per cent, though, because he had not been given Wandsworth Council's alcohol policy.

That was changed on appeal and the tribunal ordered to specify a bigger reduction in Sinclair's payout, but the case highlights how carefully companies have to treat alcoholism in the workplace.

Willmott said the most important things for companies to do were to create a specific policy and communicate it regularly and clearly to workers.

But Graham said in the aftermath of the Sinclair decision, some organisations were better off not creating a policy in the first place, if they could not guarantee its successful communication and implementation.

"Realistically, if the organisation isn't capable of actively managing the policy, actively making sure that it is communicated to all employees and it's kept up to date, then in some cases it might be safer not to have the policy at all," she said.

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OUT-LAW.COM is part of international law firm Pinsent Masons.

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