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Under the influence: How drinking cultures are changing

Beer lager drinking alcohol abuse pint glass 199650

The UK’s alcohol consumption is declining – but is construction following suit? In the absence of hard data, Binyamin Ali investigates the industry’s drinking culture and discovers what companies are doing to change it.

Alcohol consumption in the UK is going down.

Awareness campaigns led by charities and the NHS, along with a growing acceptance across society that a balanced diet leads to a healthier lifestyle, have all played a part.

The latest data from the Office for National Statistics found that in 2016, 56.9 per cent of the people surveyed drank alcohol in the week before they were questioned by the ONS. This figure represents a 7.3 per cent decline on 2005, when the percentage stood at 64.2 per cent.

The ONS also found that the proportion of people stating that they do not drink alcohol at all increased from 18.8 per cent to 20.9 per cent over the same period.

When it comes to the construction industry’s relationship with alcohol, however, there is little historical data available to help understand the trend. The Health and Safety Executive, for example, does not monitor whether alcohol was a contributory factor in a reported injury or fatality.

A 2016 Considerate Constructors Scheme survey sought to shed some light on the issue, but this looked at the prevalence of both drugs and alcohol within the industry, making it difficult to apply the findings to discussions solely around alcohol.

The lack of data and research begs the question: what sort of drinking culture does the construction industry actually have?

‘You followed the dirty feet’

“It goes back years that most construction workers like to have a beer after work, especially on a Friday,” says Mark Collison, operations manager at utilities specialist Vision Survey. “When I started back in 1997, I was on a site where there was a pub next door and a high percentage of people would go and have a beer at lunchtime, and certainly they would be there after work every night.”

Having entered the industry as a trainee surveyor in the late 1990s, Mr Collison says drinking during the day doesn’t happen anymore because workers would not be allowed back on site. However, you are still likely to see “pubs around the sites in the evening and certainly on a Friday [that have] guys in there straight from […] finishing their shifts,” he adds.

“When was the last time you walked into a bar during the day and saw somebody in a hard hat having a pint? Thirty years ago, they would have been queueing up at the bar”

John McGee, McGee

McGee director John McGee adds that the drinking culture after work “isn’t as severe as it used to be”, and reiterates Mr Collison’s observation about drinking during the day.

“There is a zero lunchtime drinking culture,” Mr McGee says. “When was the last time you walked into a bar in London during the working day and saw somebody in a hard hat having a pint? You won’t see any. Thirty years ago, they would have been queueing up at the bar.”

McGee director of health and safety John Hennessy adds: “All you had to do was follow the dirty feet.”

ONS figures show that as of 2016, 29 million people in the UK drank alcohol – just under half of the population. Of these, 7.8m (26.8 per cent) said they drank heavily.

Given that drinking continues to be very much a part of Britain’s social fabric, the pub remains an obvious choice of venue for teams working together on site to socialise after their shifts have finished.

“You spend a lot of your time with the same people or as part of a gang, so you tend to forge quite a good bond with them,” Mr Collison says. “My background is obviously surveying, but you’ll end up working with steel erecters and cladding fixers – at the end of the week you go and have a beer because you form this bond.”

More on drugs and alcohol

Lucy Alderson speaks to workers and experts to identify where enforcement is falling short and assess the scale of the problem.

Understanding the causes

To prevent any health risks associated with alcohol, the NHS recommends drinking no more than 14 units per week (a bottle-and-a-half of wine or five pints of lager), spread across three or more days.

When the job takes people away from home and requires them to stay at a hotel, however, workers can become more likely to exceed these guidelines. With few places to go beyond the site and their hotel room, “people’s socialising or relaxation time happens in a bar or a pub”, says O’Keefe health and safety lead Michelle Rice.

Another trigger that can lead to increased consumption is the number of hours people are asked to work, and the amount of pressure they are placed under.

“Industry programmes are becoming tougher and more ambitious in terms of the timescales that people have to complete buildings,” Ms Rice says. “People are being asked to work longer hours and to work under more stress, so the reality is when they leave work […] they have a very short timescale in which to unwind and let go of the day.”

“One of the things that I’ve stipulated, and we’ll be doing going forward, is anyone who is conducting a drug and alcohol test, I believe should be a mental health first aider”

Michelle Rice, O’Keefe

This reduction in leisure time can lead to some workers drinking more to speed up the process of unwinding, Ms Rice suggests, given alcohol’s popularity as a relaxant. And if someone does fail an alcohol test on site, this should not simply be the start of a disciplinary process, she argues.

“One of the things that I’ve stipulated, and we’ll be doing going forward, is anyone who is conducting a drug and alcohol test, I believe should be a mental health first aider. It’s a natural point at which to start the conversation,” she says. “It doesn’t necessarily correlate that just because somebody has not passed an alcohol test on a Monday that they have mental health issues, but certainly it would be a flag and an indication.”

Both Ms Rice and Mr Collison agree that the industry has taken significant strides with regards to mental health awareness, but add that the link between alcohol and mental health is not appreciated as much as it ought to be. “I think we’re aware of it,” Mr Collison says. “It’s easy to link the two, but I don’t think enough is being done to confirm that.”

Ms Rice believes this is the main reason people who conduct drugs and alcohol tests should be mental health first aiders, adding that the time has come to “treat them in a multifaceted way”.

What companies can do

With so many potential factors behind the amount of alcohol a construction worker may drink, does this place more responsibility on the shoulders of employers to monitor these triggers?

Mr Collison believes so. Taking the example of someone who is working on a job that requires them to stay in a hotel, he suggests it can be useful to be aware of what people are eating and drinking.

“You can’t dictate what people can and can’t eat,” he says. “[But] because they claim back their food and drink on expenses, they have to submit a receipt – and we can gauge that. If they have gone into the pub and spent their allotted money on a bag of chips and 10 pints, then obviously it’s different to having a nice meal and one pint.”

If companies notice any unhealthy trends regarding a worker’s drinking or eating habits, Mr Collison suggests discussing whether the hotel’s location is stopping them from finding alternative places to eat, or offering guidance on healthy eating habits.

“It doesn’t matter what your task is, whether you’re safety-critical or not: if you’re going to get a pass to work on an HS2 project, you have to have a medical” 

John Hennessy, McGee

Ms Rice argues that employers have a fine line to walk here. While they will not want to be perceived as some kind of “nanny state” by their workers, support and guidance is still essential. “It’s probably more to do with us as an industry, looking at the pressures we’re putting on people,” she says.

“Because if you have limited time, you will reach for junk food. If you have limited time to try to relax from your day, you’re more likely to use something to speed that up, which might well be alcohol. There are triggers that we know could actually encourage people to do more of the stuff you wouldn’t want them doing.”

Mr McGee and Mr Hennessy add that, while employers should seek to monitor these triggers, they must not lose sight of their duty to have a robust deterrence policy in place.

“HS2 is a good example, it’s excellent what they’re doing,” Mr Hennessy says. “It doesn’t matter what your task is, whether you’re safety-critical or not: if you’re going to get a pass to work on an HS2 project, you have to have a medical. And part of your induction is a drugs and alcohol test. Even if you’re visiting the site, you’d have to do a drugs and alcohol test.”

Mr McGee adds that, although workers may look to get around this by making sure they are not under the influence during their induction, random tests are also used to offset this.

“If somebody is over the limit at work, they could be sacked and they are out of a job,” he says. “This is not playground stuff; this is, ‘You will not turn up to work over the limit or else there will be very serious conversations’.”

True cultural picture

The repercussions of failing an alcohol test are undoubtedly high, and employers are increasingly aware of the risks both to them and their workforce of operatives being under the influence.

“We’d rather they didn’t come into work and if anything, we’d probably congratulate them for not coming in. We accept that people go to christenings and social functions”

John Hennessy, McGee

However, McGee’s Mr Hennessy suggests that companies should avoid adopting an overly puritanical approach to how workers conduct their social lives.

“If somebody went out and they overdid it, we’re not going to give them a hard time the next day,” he says. “We’d rather they didn’t come into work and if anything, we’d probably congratulate them for not coming in. We accept that people go to christenings and social functions.”

On the key question of whether there is too much drinking in the construction sector, Mr McGee believes industry workers are as aware as anyone else of the potential harm alcohol can do – and the wider benefits of healthy diets.

“You see it on site, they all bring in their own tupperware boxes with salad and they’re eating fruits,” he says. “There isn’t a single café on our sites that cooks an English breakfast.”

Ms Rice, however, says the question is “difficult to answer”. Many industry-specific factors, such as tight deadlines and high-pressure projects, “might actually encourage people to drink more”, she adds.

With the lack of robust research making it difficult to gauge exactly how much industry workers drink, the picture of construction’s relationship with alcohol remains incomplete.

However, awareness of the dangers among construction firms is growing, reflected in the conversations being had, the changes to worker inductions, and the random tests being conducted on more and more sites.

This greater openness represents a critical step towards understanding and further improving the industry’s drinking culture.

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