Changing times may require all of us to take a long hard look at our drug-and-alcohol policies

Employers often feel that they’re between a rock and a hard place when it comes to drugs and alcohol in the workplace. On the one hand, they have a legal duty to accommodate employees who suffer the disability of addiction, or who have been prescribed medication, and on the other hand, they also have a legal duty to protect the health and safety of those employees, their coworkers and the general public.

It’s a pretty hot topic right now, not least because of the huge growth in medical marijuana prescriptions over the last couple of years – one estimate I saw, from the Canadian Life and Health Insurance Association, says the number grew from 8,000 in 2014 to over 200,000 in 2016 (and presumably a lot more since then). And, of course, there’s also the fact that recreational marijuana is soon to become legal.

But the fact is that, when it comes to employers balancing the duty to accommodate with the duty to maintain a safe workplace, nothing has really changed. It all comes down to three things: creating a solid policy, informing and education all staff, and implementing the policy consistently.

Even if you have a drug-and-alcohol policy, I would still advise you to look at it very carefully to make sure all the bases are covered. In a lot of cases, that may mean updating and relaunching the policy, reaching out to educate staff, and making sure all supervisors and managers are applying it consistently.

So, first, what should be in a good policy? That’s really not all that complicated. There is something close to consensus among HR experts about the elements it should include. (Just an aside here: Policy is an employer responsibility that you can’t hand off, but consultation and discussion with employee representatives and/or a joint health and safety committee can be useful in tailoring it to your workplace, and in smoothing the process of acceptance.)

  • A statement of commitment to the health, safety and well-being of all employees and the general public.
  • A prohibition of the use or possession of alcohol, marijuana or illegal drugs anywhere on the employer’s premises. (There may be a specific, well-defined exception for alcohol at certain company-sponsored and regulated social events.)
  • A prohibition on coming into the workplace while impaired by alcohol, marijuana, or illegal drugs.
  • A requirement to report to supervisors the use of any prescription medications – such as marijuana, certain anti-histamines, and others – that are recognized by doctors and pharmacists as potentially impairing the patient’s ability to perform certain job tasks safely.
  • A statement of commitment to the employer’s duty to accommodate disability, and noting that accommodation and assistance are available to all employees.
  • And, finally, a clear statement of the progressive discipline – warnings, official reprimands, suspensions and possible discharge – that apply to violations of the policy.

Of course, every policy needs to have a set of procedures that spell out how it will work, who will do what, and under which circumstances. This needs to be spelled out just as carefully as the policy itself.

  • All employees – which includes supervisors and managers, by the way – will report the use of any prescription medications that the prescribing physician or pharmacist has informed them may cause impairment in the safe performance of some tasks.
  • Supervisors who become aware of possible impairment – such as performance lapses, impaired behaviour, or other indicators, such as the smell of alcohol – will remove the affected employee from performing potentially hazardous tasks and report the issue to the appropriate level of management.
  • HR or management will assess the situation and take appropriate action. (This may include a return to work if the assessment finds no reason for further action; sometimes – in the real world – a no-harm, no-foul “take the rest of the day off and come back ready to work tomorrow”; a warning, modified duty and referral to the Employee Assistance Plan (EAP) for help; and possibly, depending on severity, further steps in progressive discipline. (All first incidents should include EAP referral or other measures to assist in rehabilitation.)
  • The employee may be required to submit proof from a physician that the medications in question has been prescribed. Assessment by a medical practitioner may be required to assess the degree of impairment caused by medications, and what accommodations may be required.
  • When possible and practical, accommodation will be made to allow the employee to continue to work safely.

The second part of policy implementation is just as important: making sure all employees know and understand the policy. That’s where bulletin boards, newsletters, e-mail updates and department meetings come in. I would recommend “all of the above.” As always with important issues, senior management needs to show a commitment – and in the case of drug and alcohol policy, I suggest it should focus on the company’s commitment to employee well-being through accommodation on the one hand, and protection on the other.

Finally, as with all policies, fair and consistent application is the key to long-term success. Supervisors need to be made aware of their responsibility to monitor and intervene. (This may require extra training.)

I know from conversations with clients that all this is complicated, sensitive and far from easy. But what I tell them is basically, “Go by the book, take it step by step, and stay focussed on the well-being of everyone in the workplace.” Our jobs are full of rocks and hard places, but these are ones we can manage.

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