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We often think of impairment as a result of substance use or in terms of addiction or dependence to alcohol or drugs (used legally or illegally). While not formally defined by the Canadian Human Rights Commission describes the appearance of impairment at work as: “e.g. odor [sic] of alcohol or drugs, glassy or red eyes, unsteady gait, slurring, poor coordination.”
However, impairment can be the result of various situations, including many that are temporary or short term. Issues that may distract a person from focusing on their tasks include those that are related to family or relationship problems, fatigue (mental or physical), traumatic shock, or medical conditions or treatments. Examples include:
Adapted from: “Temporary Impairment”, Department of Labour, New Zealand (2003)
Note that other issues, such as problematic gambling or shopping, may also be a cause of distraction, inattention, or making inappropriate decisions while at work. As such, they may also be considered a form of impairment.
In general, employers should consider if there is a risk to the individual’s safety or the safety of others. For example:
Each individual should be assessed on a case-by-case basis.
Employers should collaborate with employees, health and safety committee/representative, and union, (if present) to design a policy which outlines what is an acceptable code of behaviour, and an acceptable level of safety performance. The main goal is that workplaces are encouraged to establish a policy and procedure so that safety is maintained, and where necessary, help can be provided in a professional and consistent manner. The policy may also need to state how discussions will take place, what options are available if the ability to work safely is a concern (e.g., assigned less safety-critical work, sent home, etc.), and actions that may be taken. If an employee may be sent home, it should be clear if this action is taken, under what circumstances is it appropriate and whether it is done via sick time or how pay will be affected, if relevant.
The policy maybe combined as an impairment policy (that also covers substance use issues), or created separately.
Supervisors should be educated and trained regarding how to recognize impairment. In most cases, when assessing an individual for impairment, it is suggested that a second trained person be present to help make sure that there is an unbiased assessment.
Note: it is not the role of the supervisor or employer to diagnose a possible substance use or dependency problem. Their role is to identify if an employee is impaired, and to take the appropriate steps as per the organization’s policy.
If a supervisor or co-worker becomes aware of an employee who is showing signs of impairment (regardless of cause), it is very important that action is taken. Examples of corrective actions include but are not limited to:
Every discussion should be accompanied by an incident report. The report should include the events preceding the incident, identification of the employee’s unsafe work practices, the matters discussed with the employee, that management and union representatives were notified, a list of all actions taken, and any recommendations made to the employee.
Recall it is not the employer or supervisor’s duty to diagnose an employee, or to know if they have a disability. Employers can observe changes in an employee’s attendance, performance, or behaviour. They can initiate a discussion about the issue(s) as related to work, and discuss possible solutions. The discussion between the employer and employee may need to occur more than once. Document all discussions. Provide support and practice empathy, not sympathy. Focus on solutions, but if disciplinary action is necessary, it is important to follow through.
Because impairment may be the result of various circumstances, the employer should develop a clear statement of what is considered to be impaired behaviour within their workplace. The Canadian Human Rights Commission uses the following characteristics as they relate to changes in an employee’s attendance, performance or behaviour:
Sometimes there are immediate signs and symptoms present. Other times, it is a pattern of behaviour that may be a concern. The following table is from “A Toolkit to Address Problematic Substance Use that Impacts the Workplace” as published by the Atlantic Canada Council on Addiction (ACCA) which can be used to help determine impairment in general.
ACCA notes the following about using signs and symptoms:
|Table 1 |
Signs and Symptoms of Problematic Substance Use
(not specific to any causal agent)
|Psychosocial impacts|| |
|Workplace performance and professional image|| |
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Although every effort is made to ensure the accuracy, currency and completeness of the information, CCOHS does not guarantee, warrant, represent or undertake that the information provided is correct, accurate or current. CCOHS is not liable for any loss, claim, or demand arising directly or indirectly from any use or reliance upon the information.