Podcast Title: Health and Safety to Go!


Episode #: 137:  Impairment in the Workplace: What You Need to Know



Introduction Welcome to Health and Safety to Go, broadcasting from the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety.


Host: Hello and thank you for joining us. Today we’re talking to Jan Chappel, Senior Technical Specialist at CCOHS, about impairment in the workplace. 

Thanks for being here today Jan!


Jan:  You are very welcome.


Host: What is impairment and what does it look like in the workplace?


Jan:  Impairment is not formerly defined in most legislation, which means that a standard dictionary definition would apply in most cases. For example, Merriam-Webster.com defines impairment as “Being in an imperfect or weakened state or condition: such as … unable to function normally or safely because of intoxication by alcohol or drugs”.


Essentially, impairment is anything that reduces a person’s physical or mental competence or productivity.  And when this state affects workplace safety or health, it is an issue that should be managed as a potential workplace hazard.


Impairment in the workplace can have many causes.  Most people think about being impaired as a result of using a substance such as drugs or alcohol.  These are very common situations, but impairment could also be from prescribed treatments or medications, such as antibiotics which can cause nausea.  Another example is antihistamines for allergies which tend to cause drowsiness. 


Another commonly thought of situation is fatigue. Long periods of work, shift work, managing two jobs or family duties can have an impact on a person.


However, there many other examples.  For example, you could be distracted because there is a crisis in your family.  You could be in shock or feeling insecure because there was an accident, incident or robbery at work.  Your focus may be on a conflict, or a harassment or bullying situation you are having with your employer or fellow employee. 


You also asked what impairment looks like.  Since there are many causes, it won’t always look like the same thing, but common symptoms include:


·         The inability to concentrate

·         The inability to think clearly and make decisions

·         Dizziness or drowsiness

·         Disorientation or confusion

·         Slowed reaction times, or

·         An increase in anxiety or panic attacks.



Host:  Considering that it will be legalized next year, let’s use cannabis as our main example. Can impairment from cannabis use be measured?


Jan:  This is a very good question.  Technically yes, you can test using blood, urine or saliva test to determine if the main ingredient in cannabis - Delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol or THC is present in a person’s system. 


However, and this is a big however, the results of current testing methods can currently only determine if THC is present in a person, that is a person has used cannabis at some point.  Unlike testing for blood alcohol levels, getting a positive test result that indicates the presence of cannabis is not necessarily a clear indication of the risk of impairment.  THC does not break down the same way alcohol does.  It tends to stay in the body, and it depends on how often you use it.


Host: How should a situation like this be handled by the workplace itself?


Jan:  The workplace needs to have an impairment policy and related procedures in place.  We suggest using general terminology so that impairment from any cause is captured by this policy.  The goal is to have mechanisms in place where each person will be fairly evaluated for their ability to do their work safely, each and every day, or sometimes for each and every task.  Remember to include prevention initiatives such as employee assistance programs or referrals to local services when needed.


In terms of a substance causing impairment, the policy should clearly indicate the organization’s position on whether employees are allowed to use, possess, or be under the influence of substances while at work. 


Host: If a supervisor suspects that a worker is impaired, what can or should they do?


Jan:  The supervisor may have to make the determination if a person is fit to work for the day or the task assigned.  Having a policies and procedures in place allows the supervisor to enforce the rules in a fair way.  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 make sure there is an unbiased assessment.


The basic steps for a supervisor is to know the policy and procedures, know how to recognize impairment (we discussed common symptoms a bit earlier), and then know what steps to take next. 


They should speak to the employee in a private area, in a non-judgmental way. When assessing the situation, the conversation should start with mentioning their concern. You can do this by asking questions like “you don’t look as well as you usually do…” or “you seem upset and distracted…”, or “are you feeling okay?”  State that the concern is about safety for that person and others.  Have a discussion with the person to determine the safest way to move forward.

Host:  With the sale and use of recreational cannabis scheduled to become legal in Canada by July 1, 2018, what should employers be doing right now to prepare?


Jan:  While it is assumed that more people may try cannabis when it becomes a legal product for adult use next July, it’s important to know that Canada already has some of the highest marijuana use rates in the world.  A report from the Centre for Addition and Mental Health in 2014 stated that over 40% of Canadians have used cannabis in their lifetime, and about 10% of Canadians have used within the last year. 


Employers should not wait until cannabis is legalised to address this cause or any cause of impairment that may affect a person’s ability to work safely and the employer’s ability to provide a safe and healthy workplace.


Host: Where can our listeners find out more about impairment in the workplace?


Jan:  CCOHS has published a white paper called Workplace strategies: Risk of Impairment from Cannabis. It is available for free and can be downloaded from the CCOHS website. 


Host: Thank you for speaking with us today Jan. More information about impairment can be found on the CCOHS website www.ccohs.ca. Thanks for listening everyone.