With Jeff Lester, president of SafeCare Canada

What are some signs that an employee might be impaired at work?

Work place impairment falls under a number of categories. In order to correctly assess an employee who may be impaired at work, we have to look at several factors such as behaviour, unusual actions, speech, balance, and odours.

 It can be easy to tell when someone is not themselves and is acting differently. Of course, there could be other underlying circumstances behind the behaviour, such as new prescription medications, relationship breakups, or even a death in their family. Even though these factors are not impairment from drugs or alcohol, they can be just as dangerous because your attention is not focused on the work at hand.

 The most common ways to tell if there is impairment in the workplace and if there is a risk to other employees is if there is non-compliance with safety practices and policies are near miss accidents, information from other employees concerned for their safety, or recognizable changes in behaviour.

 Some common signs of impairment are slurred speech, loss of balance or coordination, slow reactions, being uncooperative and quarrelsome, excessive fatigue or sleepiness, excited and rapid movements, being overly talkative and rambling on about unrelated topics, arguing their rights or position leading to fighting, confusion and unable to complete tasks of their position, and even sweating and nervousness around supervisors. The most common sign is odour of alcohol and/or marijuana and a general lack of coordination.

What different types of drug testing are available to use in the workplace? Is there a ‘best’ test?

There are a variety of types of testing for impairment in the workplace: visual assessment, saliva testing, urine sample, hair follicle and blood testing methods commonly used for drug testing. Alcohol testing can be achieved by a urine sample testing cup, or hand held breathalyser analyzer. 

Each method has its advantages, disadvantages, and limitations, and it really depends on your company’s particular situation as to what will be a ‘best’ method of testing. 

 It’s completely up to the tester as to the testing methods or devices to be used, and the selection should be determined by the environment you are testing in, what you are testing for, and any concerns about invasive or non-invasive procedures.

Are employers allowed to submit employees to drug tests?

 Yes, but there’s a ‘but’.

In almost all cases, employers can’t ask job candidates or employees if they have an addiction or use drugs recreationally, but certain circumstances override those rules. The onus is always on business owners to ensure that they are conducting themselves lawfully and structuring proper drug and alcohol policies to prevent impairment in their workplace. We always suggest that employers have their policies reviewed by an employment lawyer.

What can an employer do to stay ahead of potential drug use issues in their workplace?

Employers can, and should, have ongoing and consistent communication with their employees about expectations, rules, policies, and what is and isn’t allowed or acceptable. With the changing landscape of drugs – recreational and otherwise – in Canada, there are going to be plenty of challenges and blind spots of which everyone will need to be aware. 

For example, with the legalization of edible cannabis, employers can’t realistically start testing employees’ lunches for drugs but instead need to provide clear communication about what is and isn’t acceptable. As for when an employer can or should test an employee for drug use, it would depend on their company’s policy.

The best way to keep ahead of any issues is to engage with the experts and resources available to you: workers compensation boards or the provincial workplace health and safety department, your lawyer, your local health region, or an industry association.

What inspired you to get into drug use testing?

My interest was inspired by seeing firsthand the impact that drugs have. A close family member was using drugs, and the cycles of destruction that come with abuse and addiction reach into every part of a person’s life, including work. Eventually, as an employer, that situation got me thinking about ways to deter drugs from being consumed in a workplace environment.

Owning a variety of different companies prompted me to look into my own workforces and identify a strategy to prevent dangerous situations that could occur due to an employee being impaired. As an employer, I’m responsible for keeping my employees safe and I take that role very seriously.