In the weeds: Making way for effective corporate policy

By Annie Bell. 

Medical marijuana. Pot legalization. Cannabis in the workplace. These phrases have sprouted in popularity — and have elicited corporate trepidation — over the past year, and will continue to be a hot topic in the coming months, as the Government of Canada enacts its new cannabis legislation leading up to July 2018.

While much of the rhetoric has been rooted in the fear of impeding legal chaos, it is also built on a lack of understanding between employees and employers as to what their rights are and how they can be exercised.

We are still waiting for both scientific leaders and federal policymakers to establish guidelines on impairment levels — not to mention a device that can successfully measure impairment from marijuana use (although an oral swab test opposed to, say, a urine test can detect usage in a 24-hour period). In the meantime, there are no specific directives you can include in your policy to circumvent the uncertainty. That said, more than ever, now is the time to ensure your current drug and alcohol policy addresses the key points to protect all parties.

The most important piece of information that needs to be communicated to all company personnel is that there is no room for impairment in a safety-sensitive workplace. It must be clear in your policy that employees are responsible to communicate with their supervisor if there is a possibility of impairment, which includes alcohol and illicit drugs, as well as prescription and over-the-counter medication.

The second aspect that must be addressed is the process following the disclosure of potential impairment-causing substances. Employees must feel it is safe to come forward when required, which is supported by ensuring they understand the process and what will happen to them in that situation. This can include temporary modified work, an independent medical evaluation, or short-term disability. Additionally, the consequences of not disclosing an impairment-causing substance must be clearly defined.

In keeping with the theme of full transparency, it is imperative that the process of drug and alcohol testing is addressed in its entirety. This should outline when testing may occur (this is not as simple as it sounds — and whenever we want is not an admissible standard), what drugs are being tested for (and their corresponding cut-off levels), the breath-alcohol content cut-off level, and the related outcomes should there be a positive test result.

All of these items are of equal importance to your company drug and alcohol policy; however, none of them matter as much as properly incorporating the policy into your workforce.

Once your senior leadership team reviews and supports your updated policy, the following steps must be completed to effectively communicate expectations to your staff:

First, pick a ‘go live’ date to make the policy effective. Leave ample time for dialogue and discussion, while establishing firm goalposts to prevent implementation from being punted further and further down the road.

Second, review the policy with all employees before it is effective. Give opportunity for questions and discussion. Remember, what may be clear to you may not be intuitive or clear to others — and it is paramount your policies are not only articulated, but also understood by those they encompass.

Third, have all employees sign an acknowledgement of understanding. New hires should do this at the time of hire, before they begin their assigned work.

Last, make sure to revisit your policy annually. Circumstances and laws change — marijuana legislation is a good reminder of that — and your internal policies must accurately reflect your company requirements and the climate you’re operating in.

Finally, don’t be afraid to ask for help if you need it. Organizations like Wellpoint Health have amassed extensive experience supporting teams by delivering in-class and online training to help identify substance abuse in the workplace, and how to effectively deal with those situations. Outside input in the development or review of your policy can also be a useful tool in ensuring the inclusion of appropriate language and structure.

Good policy and engagement is about protecting your business and your people.

Annie Bell is the national drug and alcohol manager with Wellpoint Health — one of Canada’s premier occupational health and safety advisors.