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Cannabis & Safety Sensitive Occupations

Why Legalization Matters to Canadian Employers
Sponsored By Horizon Occupational Health SolutionsWorkplace - Safety|
Cannabis & Safety Sensitive Occupations

For years now, Canadians have been waiting with baited breath on the legalization of recreational cannabis. As we enter the age of legal cannabis, advocates of Canadian industry are working to define exactly how employers should prepare themselves for this shift in culture.

At present, many employers understand very little of how this may affect the performance and/or safety of their employees. Cannabis use has been shown to present both short-term and long-term effects on the physical and mental capacities of individuals. These effects may vary significantly from one person to the next, but one thing we know for sure is that safety sensitive occupations are at risk.

This presents a number of complex issues for employers across Canada. Since all employers are responsible to provide a safe workplace, it is also their responsibility to understand the substance, its effects on individuals, the regulations around its usage, and most importantly, to assure that Alcohol & Drug Policies are up to date following this shift.

Prevalence in Canada

So, how can we predict how Canadians will interact with cannabis now that its recreational use is legalized? Currently, cannabis is the most commonly used psychoactive substance around the globe. In 2013 it was estimated that 182 million people used cannabis for non-medical purposes.

Recent data from Health Canada shows that by the end of March 2017 over 167,000 Canadians had signed up with a licensed marijuana producer – a significant increase from the 98,000 people registered at the end of September 2016. If the growth in medical cannabis in Canada is any indication of the potential boom in recreational cannabis then we could be looking at an increase of over 70% within a year of legalization.

Understanding the Effects

At its basis cannabis is a plant substance comprised of chemicals called cannabinoids. One cannabinoid in particular, Delta Nine Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), is thought to be the most psychoactive property. The level of physical and mental effects of cannabis, independent of type and delivery method, depend mostly on volume, concentration of THC, and the level of experience that the user has with the substance.

Once used, the effects of cannabis often present within minutes and slowly dissipate over a number of hours. However, some studies suggest it could take closer to a week for all of the physical and/or mental symptoms to subside. With this in mind employers are asking themselves; is there a reasonable time frame for workers to return to safety sensitive jobs after recreational use of cannabis?

Testing Impairment

One of the most obvious occupational health and safety concerns is the ability to recognize how the physical effects of cannabis can impair an individuals’ performance during critical work tasks. To date, there are few processes in place to deal with job site safety regarding cannabis. Drug testing can detect if someone has used cannabis in the last 24-48 hours, but it can’t determine levels of intoxication – a major issue when the substance in questions has such a large variance of effects on the individual.

The core of the problem for organizations today is that we do not currently have a reliable measure for impairment when it comes to the use of cannabis. This lack of reliable chemical test makes it difficult for employers to enforce regulations. Therefore, it seems that the challenge for Canadian organizations will not be the detection of cannabis itself, but rather the assessment of work-related impairment from it.

Defining the Risks

The development of a strong defendable cannabis specific drug and alcohol policy is the first line of protection for employers regarding workplace safety. But the next and more critical step to mitigating risk when it comes to the safety of employees – in relation to recreational use of cannabis products – is understanding the implications that cannabis may have on safety sensitive roles.

It’s important to note that a blanket approach regarding the prohibition of cannabis may not recognize the need to define safety sensitive vs. non-safety sensitive occupations. Additionally, in policy development that concern safety sensitive roles, employers will need to show due diligence that suggests the impacts of cannabis on the critical/essential tasks of the job.

Finding the Solution

With cannabis legalized, employers still have the right to prohibit it in the workplace. However, as the Final Report written by the Marijuana Task Force rightly indicates, human rights should not be infringed upon through drug and alcohol testing. Testing can only be rightly used if it is to satisfy a previously established Bona Fide Occupational Requirement (BFOR), otherwise known as the physical and cognitive risks of specific occupational tasks.

If the short-term, and especially long-term, effects of cannabis use overlap with the critical tasks of a safety sensitive occupation the employer might not have the rights to request a drug test. Although, testing could be carried out if the employer had a BFOR that represented the critical demands of the occupation and could prove that the recognized effect of cannabis use would affect performance.

Finally, if meaningful impairment can be proven and employer’s duty to accommodate has been met, an employer may be able to enforce a zero-tolerance policy regarding marijuana usage for that job. This approach has nothing to do with discrimination, and everything to do with mitigating risk.

For questions relating to this article, or to learn more about establishing clear and defendable drug and alcohol policies for your organization, contact us.

By Dr. Farrell Cahill, Lead Researcher, Horizon Occupational Health Solutions