Is the office fridge still full of beer? The relationship between drink and work is shifting. HRINZ national president Julia Stones has seen a marked change over the past decade.

Where once the drinks trolley might be rolled out at 4pm on a Friday, and sometimes other days, that is happening less, says Stones.

In part, the changing face of alcohol in the workplace is due to the Health and Safety at Work Act 2015.

The act says an employer must take all "reasonably practicable steps" to eliminate risks in the workplace. That includes employees becoming a hazard to themselves or colleagues due to alcohol intake.

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The wording of the act made organisations nervous and many took a long, hard look at their alcohol policies. Many big names have made changes. For example, Fletcher Construction lowered the alcohol site limit.

But it's not just the law that's changing the attitude to alcohol in the workplace.

"New Zealand organisations have become more aware of and more respectful of cultural diversity," says Stones. "That is what I have noticed has really changed."

One rule for all

Fonterra has a policy of no alcohol at work.

The policy originated from the company's industrial facilities where being under the influence of alcohol (or drugs) at work is a safety issue. "We set very high standards when it comes to drugs and alcohol and we don't want our people to be impaired (at work)," says Greg Lazzaro, global director of health and safety, resilience and risk at Fonterra.

For consistency, the policy was adopted company-wide and enshrined in Fonterra's Code of Business Conduct, says Lazzaro. In order to lead by example from the top, the company introduced a policy where workplace drinks were no longer part of the culture. Instead, says Lazzaro, Fonterra employees can join the social club and go to off-site events.

"It is not seen as being in our value structure to have one standard in our sites and another in our offices," he says. "We are a co-operative and we have high family values."

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"If we need to celebrate an occasion we will take it off-site to an external venue that caters for these types of events," he says.

The only exception to the no-alcohol policy is marketing events that are sanctioned from the top at Fonterra's head office.

Only, however, if it is a business related event, says Lazzaro. The types of events that qualify might include wine and cheese samplings or events where the media or other specific groups are invited. Because Fonterra's headquarters are not licenced, the company uses outside caterers to provide food and alcohol.

There are legal issues around the health and safety consequences of alcohol at work. In the aftermath of the 2015 act, some employers considered taking the same approach as Fonterra and taking steps to eliminate the risk posed by alcohol in the workplace.

The act, says Bridget Smith, partner at SBM Legal, is about taking a sensible approach and to say: "Is this a sensible thing to do? Should we be letting our employees on our premises drink as much as they like without eating, or worry about how they get home?"

In usual circumstances, says Smith, how employees get home from work isn't a concern for the employer. "But what happens," asks Smith, "if you end up in a situation where you are having Friday night drinks, you are providing alcohol, but no food, no non-alcoholic beverages and no supervision of consumption, and an employee gets into a car and dies on the way home?

"As the employer, you don't want to be associated with that in any way, shape or form," says Smith.

Such an event would no doubt make the headlines. Legally, it would be difficult to establish the employer's liability. But the PR damage to the brand could be severe.

There have been instances in recent years of employees dying at the work Christmas party. Mother-of-three Kalli Benjamin died after falling five metres at the GE Money Christmas party held at SkyCity in 2006.

Pacific Hygiene employee Darren Grace died at the company's Christmas party in 2009 after becoming unruly and being restrained by a colleague. Under current legislation, the companies holding the Christmas parties could find themselves under investigation for breaches of health and safety.

The new act doesn't say organisations have to can Friday night drinks or Christmas parties, says Smith. But big organisations may have formed the view that it is just not worth it, she says. The bigger the organisation, the harder social drinks are to police and the more problematic. "There's more than one downside to that and whatever social budget they have is better spent on other things."

Cutting out the Friday night drinks gets some employees up in arms. At Fletcher Construction, employees complained the company was trying to restrict what people did in their own time.

"Our focus is solely on making sure people come to work in a condition where they can work safely," the company said at the time. "For us this means people having alcohol levels below our site level."

From a human resources point of view, the big issue for employers, says Stones, is where their responsibility ends. Increasingly the boundaries between people's work and personal lives are being blurred.

"That is challenging. If a work social event is held at a restaurant, for example, at what point does the responsibility of the employer end? It is a very nuanced situation," she says. "It may need testing in the courts.

"There is an unwritten rule that when the most senior person in the organisation leaves it gives subjective permission for (the remaining employees) to do their own thing and relax."

Another issue that causes some difficulties in organisations is the no-alcohol-at-work policy, except in the boardroom, says Stones.

"There is an interesting dichotomy whereby there is a no-alcohol rule, but what happens in the boardroom?"