On High Alert: Addressing Impairment in the Workplace

Originally published by the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health & Safety

Don’t wait for the October 17 legalization of recreational cannabis to start preparing for the possible impacts on your workplace. Now’s the time to review your policies and procedures because, regardless of the source, impairment can affect our focus, judgment, and ability to do our jobs safely. Learn more about the steps you can take to reduce the impact of impairment and the role that both employers and employees play in workplace safety.

Understanding impairment

Impairment in the workplace is not a new issue. There are many potential causes of impairment including the use of legal and illegal substances such as alcohol, cannabis, drugs (over the counter, prescription, illicit), and certain medications, as well as factors such as fatigue, life stresses, and certain medical conditions. As such, employers already have had to deal with the potential of impairment in the workplace. Legalization of recreational cannabis may not necessarily change existing policies and procedures, but workplaces should take the opportunity now to review them to ensure they address both therapeutic and recreational cannabis.

While cannabis will be acceptable under the law as of October 17, impairment is still not acceptable in the workplace, and for good reason.

Like others sources of impairment, using cannabis or any cannabis product can affect your ability to concentrate, think, and make decisions. Your coordination may suffer and reaction time may slow down. This can affect your motor skills, including your ability to drive. It can also increase anxiety and cause panic attacks, and in some cases cause paranoia and hallucinations. When inhaling cannabis, the chemicals in the smoke pass from the lungs into the blood, which carries the chemicals throughout the body and to the brain. If ingested instead of smoked, the effects of cannabis are delayed because the chemicals must first pass through the digestive system.

Employer and employee roles

Workplace health and safety is a responsibility shared between employers and employees. Employers are responsible for developing, implementing and monitoring hazard prevention programs, which should include policies around any potential hazards in the workplace, such as drugs, alcohol or other substance. Employees have the duty to do their job safely and understand the impact that using substances can have on their safety and that of others.

Employers, managers and supervisors need to be on the lookout for signs of impairment from the consumption of cannabis. To exercise due diligence, an employer should work with the health and safety committee to create and implement a plan that identifies possible workplace hazards, including the impacts of possible impairment, and carries out the appropriate corrective action to prevent incident or injuries. Workers have the duty under the Occupational Health and Safety Act to report hazards as they seem them.

The law

Cannabis laws will vary by jurisdiction. Each province and territory has the ability to set its own rules for cannabis, including: the legal minimum age, where you can buy it, and where you can use it. Check with your jurisdiction for the applicable legislation.

Update your policies

Employers should update or develop workplace policies and programs that address impairment from any source.

Developing a clear impairment policy that takes a fitness-to-work approach to impairment, communicating the policy to workers, and applying it consistently can help employers manage their obligation to ensure workplace safety. “Fit to work” or “fitness to work” is a medical assessment done when an employer wishes to be sure an employee can safely do a specific job or task. The purpose is to determine if medically the employee can perform the job or task under the working conditions.

Labour and management, including the health and safety committee, should jointly develop a policy that addresses the risk of workplace impairment. The policy should use general concepts such as “impairment” as this approach will be relevant to all sources of impairment, not just cannabis.

Some elements of an effective policy could include

Defining impairment.
Addressing impairment from both recreational and medical cannabis as well as other causes.
Stating if the item is allowed on premise, and if so, under what circumstances.
Educating workers on your policies and programs, and ways that the workplace can help and provide support, such as Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs)
Training workers, supervisors and managers on how to identify signs of suspected impairment, and how to respond appropriately.
Describing when accommodation will be considered (for example, workers with medical needs or disabilities).
Explaining how disciplinary actions will be conducted, when necessary.

Accommodation and Testing

Employers have the duty to assess each situation and determine the effect on the workplace, and the possibility of fulfilling the duty to accommodate in terms of therapeutic use and disability due to substance dependence. Base accommodation plans on medical assessment, and develop them collaboratively with the employee.

Testing employees for substances typically reveals only the presence of the substance, not the level of impairment. Human rights legislation generally does not support testing. Employers should seek legal advice before testing workers for substances, and supervisors and employees should be educated and trained on current policies, programs, and recognizing impairment in others.

Addressing potential impairment from cannabis is part of a workplace’s hazard assessment process.

Reducing the impact of impairment on the workplace requires having the appropriate mechanisms in place, providing clear guidance to all workplace parties, and applying workplace policies and programs using a fair and consistent approach.


Workplace Strategies: Risk of Impairment from Cannabis white paper, CCOHS
Impairment and Cannabis in the Workplace online course, CCOHS
Impairment in the Workplace: What You Need to Know podcast, CCOHS
Elements of Workplace Impairment Policy podcast, CCOHS
Substance Use in the Workplace fact sheet, CCOHS
Impairment at Work fact sheet, CCOHS
Fatigue fact sheet, CCOHS
Workplace Health and Well-being Promotion – Getting Started fact sheet, CCOHS
Cannabis laws and regulations

Read the original article at ccohs.ca/newsletters