Workplace Substance Abuse:

When things get “tricky”

Written by Zohaib Khan, Product Manager at Draeger Safety Canada Ltd

Approximately one in five Canadians 15 years of age or older have experienced a substance use disorder at some point in their lifetime.  Statistics Canada’s data, from the 2018 Canadian Community Health Survey is a reminder that abuse of and dependence on alcohol, cannabis and other drugs affects us all even if indirectly through family members, friends, and co-workers.

In the workplace, substance abuse not only reduces productivity but places people at serious risk. T his holds true for every position in the company, but is especially critical in safety-sensitive occupations involving heavy machinery or high-risk situations.

What should you do, then, when one of your colleagues appears oddly quiet, keeping to themselves, or perhaps becomes unpleasantly expressive?  Whether the change in disposition is dramatic or subtle, something might seem off.  Has your colleague had a bad morning, an argument with a spouse, a new financial burden, unexpected bad news?  Or are they possibly impaired by drugs or alcohol?  Should you quietly protect and shield them from attention or consider broader impacts on fellow workers and say something discreetly to a supervisor?

The answer, the experts say, is for employers to map out formal policies and procedures to guide decision-making so if things get tricky actions taken are appropriate and consistent. 

A good starting point is education 

Workplace Safety North, one of four designated health and safety associations in Ontario, offers all kinds of safety workshops that help to promote awareness of the roles and responsibilities of employees and employers when substance use issues arise in the workplace.

The non-profit, quasi-governmental organization, funded largely through the provincial Workplace Safety and Insurance Board, covers northern Ontario and has a special focus on the resource sector — apt, given the region is one of Canada’s most prolific mining hubs.
Mike Parent, Workplace Safety North’s vice-president of prevention services, told us the half-day sessions offered by Workplace Safety North help explain signs of impairment and then suggests measures companies can proactively take to reduce the possibility of employees being unfit to work.

“Mining is a high-hazard industry,” Parent points out.  “There’s not a lot of forgiveness when something goes wrong.  A person operating a haulage truck needs to be in the haulage truck, mind and body, highly aware of their surroundings, and following all the rules.”

When setting up policies and procedures, it’s helpful to seek third-party assistance from someone specializing in workplace alcohol and drug policy and programs.  Barb Butler has worked with organizations in a wide variety of sectors across the country to help them develop and implement alcohol and drug policies.  Barb considers both legislation and current technology when helping clients address their individual workplace needs.

Policies and procedures must adhere to the rules

In Canada, addiction is deemed to be a medical condition, and indications that someone is unfit for work might stem from the use of legally prescribed medications.  Employers can’t fire employees merely because they appear to be intoxicated or even test positive.  Employers have a legal duty to investigate the situation, and do their best to accommodate someone with a medical condition, including an alcohol or drug dependency, unless this creates undue hardship.

Well thought-out policies and procedures consider legal, safety and other implications in spelling out acceptable behaviour in the workplace and any resulting testing, employee assistance, or disciplinary measures.

The two documents – the policy and procedure – each have their place.  A policy sets out terms and conditions the company will follow and proscribes standards for behaviour.  Procedures, meanwhile, outline steps to be taken if an employee is deemed unfit for work or otherwise crosses the line set by policy; say if there’s been an incident, frequent absenteeism, or grounds to believe an employee might be fatigued, physically, or mentally impaired.

Measures taken are generally sequential —should matters remain unresolved, further levels of discipline would unfold progressively.

Procedures also typically spell out reporting expectations so employees are able to speak confidentially to a supervisor and so that the roles and responsibilities of workers and managers, as well as departments such as human resources and the company nurse, are clearly delineated.

“Everyone needs to come into work within the boundaries of the policy,” Parent says.  “But the idea isn’t to catch employees and fire them; rather it’s to create a workplace that’s safe where all employees are fit to work.”

Resources for drafting policies and procedures

Organizations working on policies and procedures have plenty of resources.  The Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction offers considerable guidance in its 2018 report, A Review of Workplace Substance Use Policies in Canada: Strengths, Gaps and Key Considerations.

This extensive report reviews substance use policies, identifies best practices and lessons learned, and points to areas it deems needing further consideration and improvement.  For instance, the report acknowledges public concern about the legalization and regulation of cannabis in Canada, as well as survey respondents who complained that company policies and procedures focused more often on disciplinary measures than on supportive measures.

Some key advice includes creating a workplace culture that makes it clear impairment from substance use is intolerable, yet promotes a trusting, supportive environment for employees affected by substance use issues.

The Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety has searchable fact sheets, such as the document Impairment at Work, to help understand problematic behaviours, as well as elements to incorporate into policies, procedures and workplace programs.  Recommendations include clarifying rights to confidentiality, outlining reporting and self-reporting mechanisms and identifying processes for accommodation and discipline.

Another resource, published by the Atlantic Canada Council on Addiction, is Problematic Substance Use That Impacts the Workplace: A Step-by-Step Guide & Toolkit to Addressing it in Your Business/Organization.  The document, available on Atlantic Canada provincial web sites, covers everything from conducting a needs assessment to responding to a crisis.  There is even a policy checklist and sample workplace posters.

No single solution to the problem

Barb Butler advises that, while there are a lot of guidelines there is no single template in Canada for workplace alcohol and drug policies.  “Companies should develop a policy that suits them and the unique requirements of their workplace, with appropriate input from someone who can advise them on industry best practices, current technology, and legal precedents.”

Substance use – and abuse – is indeed a serious concern.  Yet, other factors can affect behaviour and hinder workplace performance and safety.  Policies and procedures need to account for causes other than ones directly involving substance use.  Leading employee assistance providers recognize counselling can extend to areas such as job-related conflict, long-term illness, disability, wellness, nutrition, and financial crises.

Ultimately, a big picture approach is helpful. Substance use doesn’t happen in a vacuum.  Overall personal well-being is key to workplace productivity and safety.

Zohaib Khan

About the Author

Zohaib Khan is Product Manager – Impairment Devices with Draeger Safety Canada Ltd., an international leader in the fields of medical and safety technology which has been protecting, supporting and saving lives since 1889.