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Addressing Impairment in the Workplace

What does the legalization of recreational cannabis in Canada mean for your workplace, and what do you need to do?


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For employers, the key issue is impairment. Being impaired at work — whether it’s by drugs, alcohol or fatigue —can affect our ability to keep ourselves and those around us safe. Review your policies and procedures because, regardless of the source, impairment can affect our focus, judgment and ability to do our jobs safely. Learn more about the steps you can take to reduce the impact of impairment and the role that both employers and employees play in workplace safety.

RELATED: Marijuana Legalization: What Does It Mean for You as an Employer?

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Understanding Impairment

Impairment in the workplace is not a new issue. There are many potential causes of impairment including the use of legal and illegal substances such as alcohol, cannabis, drugs (over the counter, prescription and/or illicit) and certain medications, as well as factors such as fatigue, life stresses and certain medical conditions. As such, employers already have had to deal with the potential of impairment in the workplace.

Legalization of recreational cannabis may not necessarily change existing policies and procedures, but workplaces should take the opportunity now to review them to ensure they address both therapeutic and recreational cannabis.

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While cannabis was acceptable under the law as of Oct. 17, 2018, impairment is still not acceptable in the workplace, and for good reason.

Like other sources of impairment, using cannabis or any cannabis product can affect your ability to concentrate, think and make decisions. Your coordination may suffer and reaction time may slow down. This can affect your motor skills, including your ability to drive. It can also increase anxiety and cause panic attacks and, in some cases, cause paranoia and hallucinations. When inhaling cannabis, the chemicals in the smoke pass from the lungs into the blood, which carries the chemicals throughout the body and to the brain. If ingested, the effects of cannabis are delayed because the chemicals must first pass through the digestive system, but the effects are the same.

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Employer and Employee Roles

Workplace health and safety is a responsibility shared between employers and employees. Employers are responsible for developing, implementing and monitoring hazard prevention programs, which should include policies around any potential hazards in the workplace, such as drugs, alcohol or other substances or situations. Employees have the duty to do their job safely and understand the impact that being impaired can have on their safety and that of others.

Employers, managers and supervisors need to be on the lookout for signs of impairment from the consumption of cannabis. To exercise due diligence, an employer should work with the health and safety committee to create and implement a plan that identifies possible workplace hazards, including the impacts of possible impairment and carries out the appropriate corrective action to prevent incident or injuries. Workers have the duty under the Occupational Health and Safety Act to report hazards as they seem them.

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The Law

Cannabis laws will vary by jurisdiction. Each province and territory has the ability to set its own rules for cannabis, including the legal minimum age, where you can buy it and where you can use it. Check with your jurisdiction for the applicable legislation.

Update Your Policies

Labour and management, including the health and safety committee, should jointly update or develop a policy that addresses the risk of workplace impairment. The policy should use general concepts such as “impairment” as this approach will be relevant to all sources of impairment, not just cannabis.

Developing an impairment policy that takes a fit-to-work approach to impairment, communicating the policy to workers, and applying it consistently can help employers manage their obligation to ensure workplace safety. “Fit to work” or “fitness to work” is an assessment done when an employer wishes to be sure an employee can safely do a specific job or task.

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Some elements of an effective policy could include:

  • Defining impairment.

  • Addressing impairment from all causes.

  • Stating if the item is allowed on premise, and if so, under what circumstances.

  • Educating workers on your policies and programs, and ways that the workplace can help and provide support, such as Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs)

  • Training workers, supervisors and managers on how to identify signs of suspected impairment, and how to respond appropriately.

  • Describing when accommodation will be considered (for example, workers with medical needs or disabilities).

  • Explaining how disciplinary actions will be conducted, when necessary.

Accommodation and Testing

Employers have the duty to assess each situation and determine the effect on the workplace, and the possibility of fulfilling the duty to accommodate in terms of therapeutic use and disability due to substance dependence. Base accommodation plans with the assistance of a medical assessment, and develop the plans collaboratively with the employee.

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Testing employees for substances typically reveals only the presence of the substance, not the level of impairment. Human rights legislation generally does not support testing. Employers should seek legal advice before testing workers for substances, and supervisors and employees should be educated and trained on current policies, programs and recognizing impairment in others.

Addressing potential impairment from cannabis is part of a workplace’s hazard assessment process.

Reducing the impact of impairment on the workplace requires having the appropriate mechanisms in place, providing clear guidance to all workplace parties, and applying workplace policies and programs using a fair and consistent approach.

The Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (CCOHS) promotes the total well-being — physical, psychosocial and mental health — of workers in Canada by providing information, training, education and management systems and solutions that support health and safety programs and the prevention of injury and illness.

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