Does a positive alcohol test result mean I am drunk?

By John Hawes | Last updated: January 16, 2019

An alcohol test does not necessarily mean that you are physically drunk. Instead, an alcohol test is used to detect the presence of alcohol in your body, including amounts much lower than those required to be drunk. Some alcohol tests provide a numerical measure of your blood alcohol content (BAC) in addition to confirming that you have had exposure to alcohol. Different types of tests are used to determine your blood alcohol concentration. A blood alcohol test will provide a direct measure of the percentage of ethanol in your bloodstream. Saliva or breath alcohol tests may provide results that are then converted to a blood alcohol equivalent.

While BAC is one indicator of your likely level of intoxication or drunkenness, many other factors will affect your actual level of impairment. Tolerance levels for alcohol consumption vary among individuals. Body weight, gender, consumption rate, and physical condition may all affect how a person responds to alcohol. A positive alcohol test indicates that you have detectable levels of ethanol in your system. The percentage concentration of alcohol present is just one consideration used when evaluating whether or not you are drunk.

Legal drunkenness is statutorily defined. Thus, a person may be deemed to be legally drunk if their BAC exceeds a specified level, regardless of their level of physical or mental impairment. In most areas of the United States, an individual will be declared legally drunk if their BAC is equal to or above 80 mg/dL or 0.08%. A BAC below 0.08% is not an indication that the individual is not drunk. Any level of alcohol may impair a person's ability to react and function. If other signs of impairment are present, a person may still be legally charged with drunkenness regardless of his or her BAC.

Department of Transportation guidelines for workplace testing of safety-sensitive employees apply a BAC level significantly lower than the statutory standard for drunk driving. Under the DOT rules, an employee with a BAC of 0.04% must be immediately removed from performing safety-sensitive tasks and cannot return until he or she has completed the return-to-duty process. An employee with levels of between 0.020 and .039 must be temporarily removed from safety-sensitive duties, often until his or her next duty shift. Thus, a positive alcohol test in the context of safety-sensitive jobs may not be an indicator of either actual, or legal, drunkenness. Instead, this standard is indicative of the DOT's requirement that employees performing safety-sensitive transportation tasks be free of drugs and alcohol while on duty.

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Written by John Hawes

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John Hawes is the CCO and co-founder at SureHire Occupational Health Testing. John graduated in 2001 from the University of Alberta with a Bachelor of Science degree in physical therapy. As a former physical therapist, John uses his knowledge of physical therapy and interest in ergonomics and biomechanics to devise fit for work testing.

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