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Findings support national standard on substance use as cannabis legalization looms

Findings support national standard on substance use as cannabis legalization looms

A new research report finds the potential impact of the legalization of recreational cannabis on Canadian workplaces is uncertain, and although no separate set of workplace rules or policies is needed to address drug impairment, there is support for the development of a national standard that provides guidance on workplace policies on substance use.

Recreational cannabis is slated to be legalized in Canada on Oct. 17. The report found the impact of legalization is expected to be wide-reaching and it is important for workplaces to be prepared earlier rather than later.

“There was considerable support among interviewees for development of a national standard on workplace policies on substance use…and tools to support their development and implementation,” states the report, entitled Workplace Policies on Substance Use: Implications for Canada, authored by the Social Research and Demonstration Corporation (SRDC) for CSA (Canadian Standards Association) Group.

“Many said a large number of organizations would benefit from guidance on both the content and process of developing workplace policies, and how to implement them. Small and medium-sized organizations and those not operating in safety-sensitive sectors were identified as potentially deriving the most benefit, since the others have had to address this issue some time ago.”

CSA Group is a global provider of testing, inspection and certification services for products from a wide range of market sectors, and is a leader in safety and environmental certification for Canada and the U.S., indicates the group’s website.

The report was authored by members of the SRDC including research director Heather Smith Fowler, researcher Michael Hewlett and lead researcher Jacey Payne. Advisory panel members included Emma Nicolson, a senior occupational health and safety specialist, the Inquiries Service Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety, and Priya Malik and Julianne Chow, project managers with CSA Group.

 

Whether cannabis usage increases or not, there is an existing ‘suite’ of legislation, industry standards and policies

— CSA Group Report

 

According to the report, benefits of a national standard on workplace-related substance use could include more consistent approaches to testing across organizations or industries; consistent, built-in protection of human rights and occupational health and safety; and greater availability and take-up of supports to employees.

Greater harmonization of policies across industries would also benefit those working for more than one employer, an increasingly common scenario among digital/knowledge workers, construction workers and part-time workers, the report states.

In addition to literature review, the research included interviews with 12 experts in the area of drug impairment or occupational health and safety, including regulators, clinicians, researchers, policy-makers, testing service providers and representatives of labour or industry.

The intention of the report was to produce a synthesis of available evidence on existing national and international policies, programs and procedures related to workplace drug use and impairment as well as best practices. However, because Canada will be one of the first countries to legalize cannabis, it is difficult to compare it or get guidance from other jurisdictions, it notes.

“Recognizing the challenges Canadian employers face with respect to workplace-related substance use, a synthesis of the latest research and practice related to workplace drug use and impairment was conducted to determine if and how a national standard might provide guidance on the issue,” states the report.

The report indicates there is existing legislation, industry standards and policies in Canada that address substance use in the workplace which should be adequate to address the issue in most Canadian workplaces. It also recommended an all-substance policy developed collaboratively with workplace stakeholders.

“This report concludes that no separate set of workplace rules or policies is needed to address impairment from drugs as opposed to other substances,” states the report. “Whether cannabis usage increases or not, there is an existing ‘suite’ of legislation, industry standards and policies in Canada that already addresses workplace-related substance use in terms of both safety and accommodation, regardless of the specific substance involved.”

Also, several people interviewed indicated the potential impact of upcoming legalization on workplaces is likely overstated and that cannabis use will not dramatically increase.

“If usage rates do increase, however — as they have in Colorado and Washington — there may well be higher rates of absenteeism, presenteeism and impairment, and hence, increased risk of accident and injury, and related disability and benefit costs,” the report indicates. “There could also be negative effects on employee health, particularly from heavy or chronic use.”

The research showed there are many complex issues with respect to workplace-related substance use, and cannabis in particular. The report listed the following as prominent gaps: research on cannabis is still limited; workplace substance use policies are still rare outside of safety-sensitive sectors; testing plays a limited role; programs and supports that assist employees with substance-related problems have a limited but promising evidence base; and balancing legal issues will be challenging for some time.

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