Fluent Motion Inc
A worker carrying a hard hat

Drug Abuse in the Workplace

Drugs can cause many different problems at work in regard to both productivity and safety. The severity of these problems can depend on the type of drug, the individual, and the level of use.

Problematic substance use, even outside of work, can impair a worker’s ability to perform their duties safely and effectively. Thus it is important for workers and employers to be able to recognize common symptoms of problematic substance use, and organizations should have policies in place to address the issue constructively.

Effects of Drugs at Work

Different drugs and substances can affect an individual’s motor skills, reasoning, and decision-making abilities, both in the short term and the long term.

Depending on the substance being used, a person may exhibit more risk-taking behaviour, which can in turn put other workers on a job site at risk. Some substances can create increased aggression in certain individuals, which may be directed at supervisors or coworkers, causing further deterioration to worker safety.

Signs of Possible Drug Use in the Workplace

Being impaired by cannabis, alcohol, illegal substances or prescription drugs can make it more difficult for a person to react quickly to risks and to perform tasks safely. When one worker fails to take necessary safety precautions, it can further endanger everyone on a job site.

Workers should be aware of signs of possible problematic substance use:

  • Frequent or excessive tardiness
  • Sleeping on the job
  • Apparent hangover or withdrawal symptoms while at work
  • Apparent difficulty making decisions
  • Reduced efficiency at completing tasks
  • Theft
  • Increased difficulty with tasks or trouble with coworkers/supervisors
  • Loss of focus

Reporting and Evaluating Problematic Substance Use at Work

Because drugs can impair a person’s judgement and reasoning, workers who are concerned about suspicious or problematic behaviour on the part of a coworker should report their concerns to a supervisor. The supervisor can then work with HR or another higher level of management to monitor the situation and take further steps if needed, without directly or immediately impacting workers.

Under Ontario’s Human Rights Code, addiction is classified as a disability. Disabilities are a protected characteristic – meaning that the code requires employers to accommodate the needs of a person with a disability up to the point of undue hardship.

In the case of a substance use issue, this means that employers should provide the worker with an opportunity to correct or recover from the substance use issue, rather than an immediate dismissal. Ideally, an organization would provide support for a worker or employee struggling with problematic substance use, through an avenue such as mental health support or employer-sponsored addictions counseling.

The “point of undue hardship” is different for each organization depending on the nature of the work being performed, and the company’s financial situation. If a worker’s substance use problem is putting other workers at risk, or jeopardizing the safety of a job site, this may constitute grounds for a dismissal.

Under the Occupational Health and Safety Act, organizations must:

  • Prepare a written occupational health and safety policy
  • Review it at least once a year
  • Maintain a program to implement it

Having a well-maintained occupational health and safety policy is helpful in determining whether there is a risk to an impaired individual’s safety or the safety of others. In evaluating the situation, a supervisor or HR manager might ask:

  • Does this person have the ability to perform their job or tasks safely (e.g., driving, operating machinery, use of sharp objects)?
  • Is there an impact on cognitive ability or judgement?

A key part of such an evaluation would be to consider if the individual in question may be experiencing side effects of a medical condition or related treatment. For example, in certain industries, problematic use of prescription drugs is a common issue due to the relatively high incidence of workplace injuries. In such a case, there is potential that the substance use problem may also be linked to a worker’s compensation claim.

Key takeaways

Drug and substance use in the workplace is a problem, and one that can put all workers at risk if it is not addressed. That said, employers should be sensitive to the fact that substance use can be a complex issue with many underlying causes, and there are constructive solutions available beyond dismissal or suspension.

As with many workplace issues, drug use or suspected drug use should be assessed on a case-by-case basis. For help developing a substance use policy for your workplace, or determining a path forward, contact Fluent Motion. We are workplace safety policy experts, and we can help you find a solution that works for your employees and your organization’s bottom line.