Pandemic-related spike in drinking and drug use could increase workplace testing

Oct 21, 2021

According to recent studies conducted in Canada and the U.S., alcohol and drug consumption has significantly increased during the COVID-19 pandemic. A survey carried out by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), 23.3% of survey respondents reported drinking more alcohol compared to before the pandemic. The data analysis revealed that changes in alcohol use were associated with age, household income, a person’s living situation, anxiety, and feeling lonely or depressed.

Another U.S. study has shown a significant increase in alcohol and other substance use affecting 49% of American workers. Its results showed that of the 49% of workers who reported struggling with some level of addiction, the number of workers reporting lower productivity or missed work due to substance abuse or addiction has nearly doubled since 2019, with about one-third (36%) of them reporting that it has affected their work more since the pandemic began. Furthermore, one in five (19%) of participants reported at least weekly usage of alcohol, drugs or prescription medication. Notably, the study results revealed that alcohol remains the most common substance abused by workers, with 1 in 10 participants reporting struggles with prescription medication during the past year.

Such increases in alcohol and drug consumption are a cause for concern, according to a recent article published by HRReporter, suggesting that recent increases in alcohol and drug use may increase workplace testing since excessive consumption of drugs and alcohol can affect the quality and quantity of work, increase absenteeism and create potential safety issues.

The article suggests that even in the case of employees working from home, depending on the jurisdiction, there could be liability or workers’ compensation in the event that someone gets hurt while working. Additionally, the worker could also need to take time off due to injury.

For instance, the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission has already implemented new rules for testing workers at high-security nuclear sites.

Over the last few decades, there have been a series of landmark cases and decisions regarding random drug and alcohol testing, these have raised contentious issues between employers, unions, and workers.

In 2000, in a landmark decision on the issue of drug and alcohol testing in the workplace in Entrop v. Imperial Oil Ltd., 2000 CarswellOnt 2525., Ontario Court of Appeal has determined that random drug and alcohol testing of all employees was discriminatory since the test results did not reflect impairment while on the job. However, the court permitted testing that could detect impairment for safety-sensitive positions.

Subsequently, the Supreme Court upheld the arbitrator’s original decision, which had been overturned by an appeal court in Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union of Canada, Local 30 v. Irving Pulp & Paper Ltd., 2013 SCC 34.

Furthermore, the HRReporter article recommends that other issues must be considered in tandem with testing implementation, such as employee privacy and the possible need for accommodation of employees, since addiction is a disability protected under human rights legislation.