Prescription Drug Testing in the Workplace

Jan 27, 2017

Does it belong?

Workplace safety is of the utmost importance for employers and employees, which is why it is so important to have policies regarding drug and alcohol use in the workplace. But what exactly should be covered within these policies? There have been questions arising with regard to the substances that are often not included in widely used POCT tests. Many employers test for common illicit substances that are abused recreationally, however the drug use climate in Canada is changing and more Canadians are abusing prescription drugs. These prescription/pharmaceutical drugs are addictive and in many cases are stronger than commonly used recreational drugs.


Abused Pharmaceutical drugs

According to Health Canada there are three main classifications of pharmaceutical drugs that are commonly abused; opioid painkillers, stimulants, sedatives and tranquilizers.1 All of these substances can have side effects that include drowsiness and euphoria, and could present safety risks in a safety sensitive workplace.  

According to Stats Canada “In 2013, 22% of Canadians aged 15 years and older indicated they have used psychoactive pharmaceuticals in the past year.”2

It can be difficult to determine when pharmaceutical drug abuse is taking place as many people are introduced to these drugs legally, via prescriptions from their doctors. As these drugs are addictive the use can morph into self-medication and abuse, and the users themselves are unaware that this transformation has occurred. As many of these drugs can cause legitimate health and safety concerns it is important to understand the signs of drug abuse and take all safety precautions required in the workplace.


As pharmaceutical drugs present workplace safety risks, what steps can employers take to ensure their workplace remains a safe environment for all employees? The majority of drug tests policies don’t include prescription drugs however many companies are now updating their drug testing programs and policies to include testing for pharmaceutical/prescription drugs in response to potential safety risks.

In several safety-sensitive industries, in addition to the DOT panel, employers are also testing for prescription medications such as barbiturates (pentobarbital, butabarbital), benzodiazepines (alprazolam, diazepam), synthetic opiates (hydrocodone, hydromorphone, and oxycodone), propoxyphene (although this drug is no longer manufactured), and methadone. A relatively new trend is also the addition of buprenorphine (Suboxone).”3

These updates help to ensure that the workplace remains safe and that employers are staying current with current drug trends within Canada. The National Safety Council recommends what employers should consider before making these policy changes.

“Working with a legal resource, the employer should decide if additional testing is warranted for pre-employment screening, pre-duty, periodic, at random, post-incedent, reasonable suspicion, return-to-duty or follow-up situations. If tests for prescription drugs will be added to a drug testing program, they must meet federal, state and local requirements.”4

Employers looking to change their current drug test programs or employers who are looking to implement a drug test program for the first time must be aware of legislator surrounding  the implementation of these programs. Employee rights must be considered, and having open discussion with employees about the testing is often recommended in a transition like this. This can be the time to use a drug policy consultant who will be able to help the employer navigate the standards, regulations and drug trends within Canada. The Atlantic council of addiction recommends that employers provide an educational program for employees that explains the policies, educates them on warning signs of substance abuse and informs them on resources available to employees. Open communication surrounding workplace drug testing allows employers to properly educate employees on the process and expectations, which helps to ease any anxieties in the workplace. Updated drug and alcohol testing programs with full transparency ensure workplace safety which benefits all involved.