Report: workplace substance-use policies could help Canadians and employers

In an effort to bring awareness to workplace practices and regulations in preparation for 2018’s legalization of cannabis, the Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction has published a report that reveals not enough Canadian companies have instituted comprehensive substance-use policies, and those that are in existence inadequately help struggling employees.

The report reviewed 800 Canadian companies and 35 publicly available policies, as well as interviewed policy experts and conducted an online survey. In its results, the Centre found that ignored substance abuse issues in the workplace led to lowered productivity, employee absenteeism, and increased cost. Companies that had well-developed policies were usually larger and included safety sensitive designations in fields such as aviation, marine, rail, oil and gas, as well as in construction and law enforcement.

From the report:
“Although almost all policies included disciplinary measures such as termination, many policies did not sufficiently incorporate, or were completely absent of, proactive and supportive elements such as educating employees, training managers and offering employees support options.”

Some companies have been adjusting their existing policies to prepare for the upcoming cannabis legislation; still others have deemed substance addiction or dependence a disability and have incorporated accommodations for employees suffering from dependencies into their existing regulations.

Alternatively, “Other [companies]…are unsure about how to move forward. Of particular concern is the difficulty in determining impairment by cannabis. Substance testing of bodily fluids only indicates the presence of THC, but does not indicate impairment, as the drug remains in an individual’s system for an extended period of time.”
Some employers told the Centre that they need more guidance from federal, provincial, and territorial governments in regards to how they are to manage the effects of the new legislation when it comes to workplace safety.

“In particular,” the report states, “several organizations suggested that a national standard on policies pertaining to substance use, including cannabis, would be useful. Although national guidance or standards might help, organizations still need to create policies and best practices that are tailored to their specific needs.”

For many Canadians, drug and alcohol safety in the workplace has become a personal issue rather than just a broad legal battle fought in the upper echelons of the Canadian court system. For Kat Wahamaa, who lost her 25 year old son Joseph in August of 2016 to a fentanyl overdose, the issue hits closer to home.

Joseph was a journeyman ironworker who recovered from his drug addiction, only to relapse after he was unable to seek help at work for fear of repercussion. As his mother said, his employer had an employee assistance program, but “[Joseph] was very afraid to actually even approach his employer because of the stigma that’s attached [to substance dependence] and because of the fear that he would lose work if he actually openly talked about what he was struggling with…The programs exist, but for people to feel safe to access them, that’s huge in terms of an organizational culture.”

“The opioid crisis that’s underway right now has a lot of employers entering into a conversation, as with us in the trade union movement,” says Loftus. “Employers are trying to find solutions to this, and to top it all off the legalization of marijuana is scaring the heck out of everybody. Everybody’s talking about how they’re going to manage this and how they’re going to do drug testing.”

Workers’ unions are working hard to guide employees to available substance abuse programs. In addition to newsletters and magazines, many unions also try to reach out to employees via social media.
Lee Loftus, business manager of the BC Insulators and former president of the BC Building Trades, says that despite union efforts, the stigma surrounding substance dependence can keep employees from speaking to their employers about their addictions. Even though it is illegal as well as a violation of human rights and collective agreements to fire an employee without first providing help for an addiction, this protection still isn’t enough for some to come forward.

“They’re not going to lose their job because they use drugs,” Loftus says, “but because they miss time.”
In circumstances wherein employees have substance abuse issues that affect the workplace, employers are required to provide evidence of cause to terminate, and have to also show proof that they have offered help to the afflicted employee. If they have not provided help, employers are then required to rehire the terminated employee and provide treatment.

Not many companies publicize their drug and alcohol policies, and while the Centre’s report had to rely on policies that companies had freely posted on the internet, the hope is that more policies will become public as time goes on, which will allow for broader data analysis.

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