Breath Alcohol Tests for Employment

Employee taking an alcohol Breathalyser Test
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What are breath alcohol tests and when can employers use them as part of pre-employment or employment screening for alcohol use? Breath alcohol testing devices, commonly known by the term breathalyzer—estimate how much alcohol is currently in the blood.

Blood alcohol tests also show current levels of impairment or intoxication, but not past use. It is in contrast to tests for illegal drugs, which do show past use.

How Breath Alcohol Tests Work

The person being tested for alcohol use blows into a breath alcohol device, and the results are given as a number. The number, known as the blood alcohol concentration (BAC), shows the level of alcohol in the person’s blood at the time the test was taken. It does not measure the past use of alcohol.

When Employers Use Them

Most companies that perform alcohol testing upon employees make it clear upon hiring that this is their practice; their alcohol and drug testing policies are typically included in their employee handbooks. Refusal by employees to submit to alcohol testing may be grounds for dismissal. Employers typically use alcohol testing under specific circumstances:

  • The employer may have a policy that tests when there is reasonable suspicion, also known as probable-cause or for-cause testing, and there are documented signs of possible alcohol or drug use by an employee. 
  • Another scenario where alcohol testing may be performed is post-accident testing when there was suspected alcohol or drug use that caused property damage or personal injury accident in the workplace. 
  • Random testing may be performed on an unannounced, unscheduled basis on employees who are selected arbitrarily from a testing pool. 
  • There is mandatory alcohol testing for employees in some industries regulated by the United States Department of Transportation and the United States Department of Defense.

U.S. DOT Required Testing

Mandatory alcohol and drug testing are required by the United States Department of Transportation for some occupations and industries.

This mandatory testing includes trucking, aviation, maritime, pipeline, railroad, and transit employees in safety-sensitive occupations. A safety-sensitive employee in the transportation industry is an individual who provides a safe work and transportation environment for co-workers and the traveling public.

The legal limit for being considered impaired by alcohol while driving is .08. However, the blood alcohol concentration that is considered impaired is a lower number than the standard driving BAC.

The United States Department of Transportation regulations mandates that a 0.04 a positive alcohol test requires removal of an employee from driving or other safety-sensitive tasks. A 0.02 result, under DOT regulations, can require removal from tasks for a certain period of time.

In addition, there are other regulations governing alcohol use for safety-sensitive employees:

  • Employees must not use or possess alcohol or any illicit drug while assigned to perform safety-sensitive functions or while actually performing safety-sensitive functions. 
  • Employees must not report for service or remain on duty if they are under the influence or impaired by alcohol. 
  • Employees must not use alcohol within four hours (eight hours for flight crew members and flight attendants) of reporting for service or after receiving the notice to report.

Pre-Employment Screening

The United States Department of Transportation specifies when applicants can be tested for alcohol as part of pre-employment screening:

  • The testing must be performed upon all applicants for a position.
  • The testing must be conducted as a post-offer requirement.

Blood/Breath Alcohol Concentration (BAC) Calculators

There are calculators available to compute your estimated blood/breath alcohol concentration based on the number of drinks you have consumed and how quickly you drank them, your weight, and your gender. In general, 1 ounce of alcohol stays in a person’s system for 1.5 hours.

Legal Issues

There are no federal laws prohibiting alcohol or drug testing. However, some individual states restrict employers from random drug testing of employees other than those in safety-sensitive positions.

Also, someone with a history of alcoholism may be considered a qualified individual with a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and other federal nondiscrimination statutes.