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Companies looking to update substance-use policies face tricky task

Companies are increasingly creating substance-use policies as a means of maintaining workplace productivity.

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Companies are being urged to create or update their drug and alcohol policies in light of the growing use of pot for medical purposes and the pending legalization of marijuana in Canada.

The recent incident of an allegedly impaired Sunwing Airlines pilot, who was removed from the cockpit of a plane as it was getting ready to fly out of Calgary, also served as a reminder to organizations why it's important to have a policy on how to deal with employees who are drunk or high on the job.

"My recommendation is to have one policy which deals with the use of drugs and alcohol; the thrust of it is usually that you're not supposed to be using or under the influence at work, and then a sub-aspect that deals with prescription medication," says Stuart Rudner, an employment lawyer with Toronto-based Rudner MacDonald LLP.

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While it's common for companies to have drug-and-alcohol policies for employees operating heavy equipment or machinery, organizations across industries are also establishing policy to help maintain workplace productivity. Substance abuse cost the Canadian economy about $40-billion in lost productivity as far back as 2002 (the latest statistics available), according to a 2006 report published by the Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse.

Since being founded more than three years ago, Canopy Growth Corp., Canada's largest cannabis producer, has laid out some ground rules around how employees with medical marijuana prescriptions can use the drug on the job.

Employees can't medicate at their desks (the company has private areas for that) and they must let a supervisor know if they're feeling unwell after medicating. Managers must also ensure the employee doesn't operate any heavy equipment or machinery while impaired, which could put them in danger.

"For a company like ours, it goes both ways; we need to respect and encourage that the right policies are in place to allow people to medicate at work," says Mark Zekulin, president of Smiths Falls, Ont.-based Canopy. "But we also can't fall into the stereotypical cannabis company. There can't be people smoking joints at the front door. As leaders, we wanted to have [the policy]."

It's tricky for employers to balance employees' rights and well-being, including possible addiction issues, with the company's need to operate a safe and productive workplace.

"Employees can't automatically be fired for showing up drunk or high at work," Mr. Rudner says. Companies can take disciplinary action, he says, especially if employees pose a risk to themselves or others.

"Just because you don't have a policy doesn't mean you can't take action, but you're going to be in a stronger position if you have a very clear policy that has been communicated to employees," says Mr. Rudner, who also wrote the book, You're Fired! Just Cause for Dismissal in Canada.

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Employers dealing with an employee who is drunk or high on the job need to document a conversation on the problem and outline steps that include how the employee plans to handle the issue, Mr. Rudner says. If the employee suffers from an addiction, they will need to be accommodated.

"You can't discriminate against people who have a disability, and having a substance abuse problem is a disability," says Jennifer Newman, a Vancouver-based workplace psychologist with Newman Psychological and Consulting Services.

Having a policy is important, but Ms. Newman says it needs to be properly communicated to employees. Managers should also receive some training on how to use it.

Niki Lundquist, a lawyer with Unifor, Canada's largest private-sector union, says employers need to be strict with their policies, but also compassionate when dealing with employees, which includes accommodating any medical issues or addictions.

"If someone is coming to work drunk, it's usually indicative of a pretty serious problem," Ms. Lundquist says. "Employers should deal with these issues as we would any other kind of issue that requires us to respond in a humane way to a problem that may well be related to a disability."

Policies should also vary depending on the workplace, Ms. Lundquist says. For instance, a company that uses heavy equipment would likely have a different, stricter policy than a technology startup.

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"There isn't one type of workplace and the result of someone being impaired is different from workplace to workplace," Ms. Lundquist says.

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About the Author

Brenda Bouw is a freelance writer and editor based in Vancouver. She has more than 20 years of experience as a business reporter, including at The Globe and Mail, The Canadian Press, the Financial Post and was executive producer at BNN (formerly ROBTv). Brenda was also part of the Globe and Mail reporting team that won the 2010 National Newspaper Award for business journalism. More


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