With more people coming off increased time at home and businesses ramping up across the province, have people slipped into a trend of placing less concern on the relationship between substance use and job performance? Social media posts showing a glass of wine or two with lunch as a coping mechanism for remote workers were joked about. The legalization of cannabis has shifted attitudes. The rapid rise in prescription pill abuse has reached epidemic proportions. All of this means professionals who handle workplace drug and alcohol awareness training are now in high demand.
Employees who more frequently use drugs or alcohol tend to arrive less ready for work. “They’re often more tired, they miss more time at work and they’re more likely to be involved in near misses and incidents,” says Daniel Poirier, Owner at Safety Nation HSE Inc. “They may even still be impaired from the night before.”
At CannAmm Occupational Testing Services, things have never been busier. As industries are coming back online and onboarding more workers, many Canadians are suffering from addiction in direct response to COVID-19. “In particular, the construction industry has been sounding the alarm regarding opioid-related overdoses,” says, Dan Demers, Director of Business Development with CannAmm and member of the technical advisory committee for the CSA Z1008 Management of Impairment in the Workplace Standard. “The lingering effect of COVID on our mental health and coping mechanisms will persist for years. We must be more vigilant within the most hazardous workplaces while ensuring we address those hazards in a way that reflects the best practices on managing the risk, versus simply getting a positive drug test back, firing and forgetting an employee.”
Workplace and new hire screening needs remain, with some shifting trends. The legalization of cannabis sees more people seeking evidence-based, safety-focused content that is digestible to the average worker. CannAmm offers bundles with supervisor and employee awareness training to combat misinformation around workplace cannabis impairment hazards. Safety Nation has seen an increased uptake in fentanyl and methamphetamine use.
The necessity for workplace drug and alcohol awareness services rises alongside the job’s hazard potential. If a recreational user shows up tired for their shift at a fast-food gig, maybe it’s not such an eyebrow raiser. If the person works in aviation or operates heavy equipment around a team of others and struggles with addiction, addressing the issue immediately is critical.
Demers describes industries that tend to be classified as potentially hazardous as, “Places where people go to work and the moves they do or do not make can literally cost lives.” These include heavy industrial, general or specialized construction, pipeline construction, transportation, municipal services, road maintenance, various trades and those handling hazardous waste removal.
Safety providers help these businesses find solutions to minimize workplace impairment hazards based on the worker’s state and performance. “Our first step is to offer expertise and consultation around what our customer’s unique situation requires,” says Demers, “We can then provide the testing, related training, and national access to get the job done swiftly and defensively.”
Workplace impairment can be seen within three categories of harm including potential, guaranteed, and unseen.
“There is a constant hazard in terms of the possibility for a significant incident or near miss to occur, resulting in serious injury, harm or death,” says Demers. “Incidents cost employers tremendously, directly and indirectly, not to mention the reputational and brand impact amongst industry peers and clients.”
No matter the industry, drug and alcohol use impacts are widespread. There’s lost productivity directly related to the unfit worker and indirectly through those picking up their slack. Lost time injury rates and records factor heavily into securing larger business opportunities. There’s also a cost for rework, corrective action, delays, theft of company time and even resources in many cases, while the perception of leadership may be damaged.
“A company that’s not serious about safety and able to effectively deploy long-standing solutions around fitness for duty are not seen as top-level employers,” says Demers. “Don’t worry about recruitment limitations due to cannabis use; worry about losing your 20-year experienced labourer who’s training all your new staff and can’t afford to work for someone who’s not protecting them.”
Poirier says those with unhealthy drug and alcohol use tend to push back against safety policies, placing less priority on a culture of safety than the majority of employees. “Those who use drugs and alcohol can often exhibit a negative attitude, especially when there are underlying issues causing them to turn to these substances,” he says.
In recent years, online platforms and digital resources have become critical to addressing workplace impairment, a support accelerated through the pandemic as online training for corporate onboarding and safety training soared. “Gone are the days of having 50 employees in a classroom for training,” says Demers. “Now, we see 500 in an interactive webinar or 5,000 taking online courses via a learning management system.”
The province also offers support. “We recognize that many Albertans are worried about their health, finances and mental health and we are here to help,” says Alberta Health Services. “Whether for managers, employees, safety supervisors, allied health professionals or small business owners, there are resources to help make workplaces safer, healthier and more productive.” Easily accessible online resources include It’s Our Business, Togetherall, Text4Hope and Transform Your Stress.
There are also cultural issues when dealing with this sensitive subject. Safety Nation is a Certified Canadian Aboriginal Business (CCAB), a point of personal pride for Poirier. “We have a deep understanding of the culture and history, which is important when we’re working with Indigenous peoples and communities,” he says. “For our people, there are many issues regarding trust, so it’s essential to have Aboriginal businesses that represent our interests as well.”
The Safety Nation team is expanding resources into these communities with programming focused on increasing job readiness, as well as helping employers better manage addiction issues. “At present, many large companies have employee assistance programs that offer confidential counselling, but this is not an option for small firms with limited budgets,” says Poirier. “There must be other options. We are looking to help address this by bringing on addiction counselling that can be accessed confidentially through private health benefits.”
As more understanding around mental health and addiction comes to light, there’s a renewed importance in strong policies that protect workers and workplace environments. “We have a new Z1008 standard on managing impairment in the workplace that’s placed a tremendous focus on the importance of training around best practices in addressing impairment hazards and focusing on proper training,” says Demers.
Organizations should ensure all members are clear on the company’s policies. Employee assistance programs and resources should be made visible through routinely circulated notices, safety meetings and employee online portals. “The opportunity to obtain support must be easily accessible, widely known, and reinforced. Individuals should not be singled out or stigmatized in any manner,” says Demers, adding that the supervisor’s role is not that of a counselor. “Their job is to manage the worker’s safety and overall work performance. The priority is to restrict that employee from any safety-sensitive work until they’re confident there is no present impairment hazard. They should get training ASAP on how to identify and document their observations and take appropriate action to enact their company policy regarding impairment hazards.”
Those concerned a co-worker may be struggling should not jump to conclusions. “Maybe they’re coping with something by using a substance, maybe they’re going through a mental health issue like depression, which is common during the pandemic,” says Poirier. “People can privately reach out to ask if everything is okay and ask to connect the person with some internal or external support. We all have things that are difficult to deal with in our lives at some time or another, and when people need us, our team is here. We are all about people and nation building. This is how we make the world a better place.”