Random Drug Testing At Forefront Of Safety-Sensitive Work


The growing movement to legalize marijuana for recreational use mixed in with random drug and alcohol testing in the workplace brings to light a myriad of complex issues to the forefront of occupational safety and the implications for work.

Just recently, the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) announced they plan to begin random testing after an Ontario Superior Court judge upheld its plan to test its employees for drug and alcohol use – a refreshing development in the TTC’s ongoing efforts to ensure the health and safety of its employees, customers, and members of the public.

No matter what your stance on the issue, one thing is certain: The latest development in the law surrounding random drug testing in safety-sensitive careers is not going away any time soon.

What does this mean for the safety-sensitive construction sector, where workplace safety is critically important?

There is no disputing that construction worksites can be arguably the most hazardous to one’s health – even fatal in many cases – and requires an extremely high emphasis on worker safety and compliance.

For crane operators, concrete formers, framers, or anyone else in safety-sensitive positions, drugs – regardless of whether they are prescribed or not – can pose dangers.

The latest ruling has created a challenging environment for both employee and employer and should spur on every other organization to start thinking about a zero-tolerance policy that prohibits drugs and alcohol on site, and prohibits workers from reporting to work impaired.

It has become a prevalent issue in Canadian labour law and employers need to start thinking about the importance of updating their drug and alcohol policies to define impairment and what it means to be fit for duty – and start thinking about the safety hazards that could be caused by other types of prescription drugs.

If we don’t allow an employee on site because he or she is high on marijuana, why would we turn a blind eye to an employee who is impaired because of any other prescription medication?

To put it bluntly, drug and alcohol impairment is forbidden because workers understandably want to know that the person next to them – or the one operating the crane above them – is not drug impaired, and employers have an obligation to keep their employees safe when at work.

We know the short-term effects can include distorted perception; loss of coordination, problem-solving and unlike alcohol, remains in one’s system long after the impairing effects have worn off.

Marijuana makes it harder to concentrate, pay attention and tell how far away things are, for up to five hours after you use it. It also makes your hands less steady and slows your reaction time.

As a health and safety compliance expert, I have become more diligent about observing employees during lunch breaks and other encounters even though I have seen no evidence that an employee is using the drug, abused the drug, or that they have ever been impaired at work.

Figures show that marijuana is the most commonly used and abused drug by employees, followed by cocaine, with prescription drug use steadily increasing. Statistics show that hundreds of thousands of people who use illegal drugs are employed.

Even worse, drug or alcohol abuse by an employee can endanger the safety of other employees, customers or the public and give rise to other potential risks.

Ultimately, employers must think through these issues before they’re faced with them on the job site. Otherwise, they may find themselves tied up in litigation or – much worse – a major accident or fatal injury on the job.