Impending Marijuana Legalisation Raises Workplace Safety Fears in Canada

Canada is currently preparing for the full legalisation of marijuana use, expected in summer 2018 after the passing of Bill C-45. However, 71 percent of employers do not feel prepared for this change, according to a new survey by HRPA, Business of Cannabis (BofC) and Public Services Health & Safety Association (PSHSA).

Many employers are concerned about the impacts legalization could have on accidents, absenteeism and performance, particularly in occupations involving driving or operating heavy machinery, where workers have to be alert at all times.

Data from the U.S. Department of Labor justifies these concerns; drug users are absent from work an average of five days per month due to drug use, and drug and alcohol abuse causes 65 percent of workplace accidents. However, there are no published studies that look at the impact of recreational marijuana legalization on the workplace. The only data comes from a 2017 report by a U.S. drug-testing company.

Employers will be able to restrict or ban the use of marijuana in the workplace (or working under the influence of marijuana) in the same way they are able to with alcohol and other controlled substances.

However, Canada has no framework in place to regulate the use of cannabis, or any approved methods for testing intoxication or impairment. Talks about federal rules to control workplace impairment are being complicated by issues such as workers’ rights to privacy, and an employer’s duty to accommodate medical marijuana and dependency issues.

This means that one of the main barriers to workplace safety is an inability to detect marijuana use. “There isn’t a clear way to know if somebody is impaired,” stated Jennifer McCurdy of the St. Albert and District Chamber of Commerce. “If someone is operating machinery…in the workplace impaired, that’s going to affect their work or the safety of the public.”

Smell is not a reliable marker of use, as edible products containing psychoactive THC and vape devices have eliminated the familiar scent associated with the drug. Current tests for THC involving urine samples can give an impaired reading, often indicating a positive result even when the drug wasn’t used in the last few days (although in the U.S., oral swab tests have been developed that can detect impairment through saliva).

As of January, Cannabix Technologies had completed its Beta 3.0 prototype for a device which could be a solution for both workplace and roadside testing by private companies and law enforcement, and would ease concerns for employers and insurers. However, it is not clear when it would be ready for widespread use.

Clearly, there is a need to revise soon-to-be-outdated workplace policies surrounding controlled substances and drug use, which will now need to include a section on recreational marijuana. Employers’ next steps could, therefore, include the following actions:

  • Define the scope of the policy and its application.
  • Outline the scope of prohibition, the circumstances and process of testing, and procedures, sanctions or penalties thereafter.
  • Ensure that employees with medical issues or needs relating to a disability are protected from discrimination.

As the law changes, managers will need to maintain the safety of their workplace through consistent and well-thought-out policies. They will need to keep up to date with developments in testing technologies, educate themselves about the safety risks associated with marijuana use, and develop strategies to control these risks, according to the nature of their workplace.



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