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Substance abuse at work


In this edition, we will address an always delicate topic, namely consumption on the job in the context of a security-sensitive work environment. This issue is a reality in all sectors. It is now possible to establish certain patterns of consumption, which can help guide managers in their response (policies, detection, awareness campaigns, etc.). Even so, these patterns are fast evolving, and the problem is likely to grow. Fortunately, there are effective ways to take action.

RIP casual reefer

Yesterday’s casual pot is no more. Nowadays, the rating of THC (the active substance in cannabis) in marijuana is 40 times higher than in the 1970s, and “Quebec Gold” is among the most sought-after varieties in the world, given its high level of THC. For illustrative purposes, in 2011, the city of Amsterdam, Holland—known as the haven of “Cannabis Culture” for its “high” tolerance—has reclassified cannabis with a THC rating above 18% as a “hard drug,” i.e., the same category as morphine and heroine. This is without mentioning synthetic cannabis, which is made up of floral substances that are vaporized into a synthetic cannabinoid to reproduce the effects of marijuana. This synthetic cannabis is sold online and in certain stores, and is undetectable.

The Internet

The Internet has revolutionized access to drugs. Today, it is easy to “order stuff” on the Net. This raises the problem of the origin and composition of the substances, which are unknown to the consumer and can cause serious and even deadly poisoning.
The Internet also offers synthetic drugs such as GHB, which are becoming a major concern in Canada and Quebec and making their entry into workplaces. Liquid GHB, taken in small doses for effects similar to alcohol, is colourless and odourless.

These new realities inevitably raise major challenges for our traditional responses.

While waiting for a “pot-meter”: a word on detection

When it comes to drug detection, there’s nothing new to report. In Quebec, the status quo goes on. In spite of new screening tools, the same difficulty is always encountered: unlike breathalyzers, “on-site” screening devices are unable to determine whether an employee was under the influence at the time of providing a body fluid sample.

Even in the event of positive results on site, the sample, to hold up in court, must be sent to a laboratory for confirmation. In the meantime, the employee is not removed from the work environment; in other words, there is a logical disconnect between the means and the end, which is to provide security. It comes as no surprise, then, that arbitral jurisprudence, in Quebec, is mostly comprised of cases of flagrant offence (being “caught in the act”), in which no test is required and it is relatively easy for the employer to provide evidence. However, these cases are far from reflecting all the consumption that takes place or that is brought to the attention of the employer.

This situation is sure to change with the increasingly widespread use of drug screening devices that rely on breath samples. Less invasive than urine sampling, this type of test also has the advantage of detecting the presence of drug residues left behind by smoke in the suspect’s breath, and which remain in the body for shorter periods. If the consumed substance was smoked, for example marijuana, a positive result for a breath sample could indicate recent consumption, unlike a urine test that will detect consumption dating weeks or even months before the sample was taken. These new technologies are very promising for workplaces with security risks.

The case of Metron Construction

What can be learned from the tragedy of Metron Construction, where four workers, including a foreman, died on December 24, 2009 after the collapse of scaffolding designed for two workers and their equipment and two lifelines, on the 14th floor of a highrise? Five things:

  1. This was the first Canadian company to be convicted under the provisions of the Canadian Criminal Code concerning the responsibilities of individuals and organizations (Bill C-21) in connection with drugs.
  2. The company and its owner were sentenced, in first instance, to a $200,000 fine. The Crown Prosecutor appealed on the grounds that the fine did not reflect the objective seriousness of the foreman’s negligence. The aggravating factors included the fact that the foreman had consumed substances with the three deceased workers. The company was sentenced to a $750,000 fine on the second round. One of the two surviving workers, who is handicapped, has brought civil proceedings against the company and is seeking $16 million.
  3. If the foreman had not died himself, he would have been sued for criminal negligence causing death, for having left workers under his supervision carry out their tasks even though he was aware that they were under the influence of marijuana.
  4. The chain of liability was then transferred to the project manager, who was found guilty in June 2015 of four charges of criminal negligence causing death and one charge of criminal negligence causing injury. According to the Crown Prosecutor, he himself was on the structure and “miraculously” survived by jumping onto a balcony. The manager was anticipating a bonus for completing the work by the end of December and is believed to have deliberately neglected safety rules in order to reach this goal on December 24, 2009.
  5. The Metron Construction case clearly illustrates the greatest hazard involved in drug consumption on the job, which is the ignorance of risk caused by a false sense confidence and all-powerfulness. This is one of the effects of psychotropic drugs, along with a slowdown in reflexes, reaction times, and decision-making. It could be reasonably hypothesized that only ignorance of the risks could have pushed four workers to climb onto such a structure without being attached.

What about supervision?

Supervision is often the weak link on the riskiest shifts, namely evenings, nights, and weekends, where oversight is sparse or lacking altogether. In addition, some communities show a reluctance to act during these hours, especially in small locales and remote regions. Of course, some foremen have good intentions (family ties, wish to avoid encroaching on workers, etc.), yet it is easy to become an unwitting accomplice by deliberately turning a blind eye to obvious signs of consumption.

However, no concerted action against workplace consumption can be effective without the involvement of supervisory staff. It is unlikely that worker-consumers can be influenced if the foreman is tolerating the consumption, whatever the reason. However, this should not stop the employer from taking measures, which should include a plan to make supervisors aware of risks to security, as well as their roles and responsibilities in preventing drug consumption at work. This is a shared responsibility.

The absence of data on workplace consumption: Why the silence?

Over the past 10 years, as we have been taking action in workplaces to counter consumption and trafficking, we have noticed that little data is available and that the few existing studies on the subject are outdated. However, our experience indicates that this is a real problem that is bound to be exacerbated by new substances and the consumption profile of young generations of workers. It would unfortunate to wait for a repeat of the Metron Construction tragedy to begin examining the issue of drug and alcohol consumption at work, which seems to be the most overlooked problem in companies’ global approach to health and safety. More reliable data would surely help clarify the issue and help prevention efforts.

Causes for concern

  • The profile of worker-consumers
  • What is being consumed?
  • The cycle of impaired behavior associated with mixing substances
  • The absence of supervision; constraints specific to night shifts
  • Consumption by the foreman…
  • A bulletproof case requires solid evidence

If you have any questions regarding this article or would like information on our training workshops, contact Nathalie Durand at [email protected].


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