Addiction in the workplace and Safety-Sensitive Assessments

From big rigs to balance sheets – Addiction and safety sensitive assessments know no bounds

Safety. Not many workplace issues have caught the attention of employers in the past few years, as has the issue of safety. This is not surprising given that workplace safety impacts employees, customers, and the general public. Corporate responsibility to employees and other stakeholders, as well as government regulations, have led to the creation of new policies, procedures, committees, and specialized fields within the human resources and occupational health professions. Workplace safety is now viewed as an indicator of a positive work environment. In fact, companies promote their track records of “accident-free work-days” and reward employees for their roles in maintaining a safe workplace.

For many people, obvious thoughts of workplace safety include hard hats, safety boots, safety glasses and hearing protection. Construction is often the first type of job to come to mind where safety is a priority, because our understanding of safety is frequently related to the dangers of heavy or falling objects, and hazards such as heights. In contrast, people working in other environments and industries such as healthcare, retail and business are less likely to think about potential safety hazards when they arrive for work each day. However, many of the causes of workplace injuries are just as likely to be found in a law firm, as in a manufacturing plant. These causes include fatigue, stress, slips, lifting, trips and falling objects. While the resulting incident may not lead to an injury, an accountant’s miscalculation or a teacher’s classroom behaviour can have far-reaching implications and therefore may be deemed just as serious. As a result, workplace safety needs to be a priority regardless of how risk-free a job appears to be.

Addiction in the Canadian Workplace
While workplace safety mishaps can occur at any time, the likelihood of the above-mentioned scenarios is compounded when an employee suffers from a substance abuse problem. While many employers believe that they are immune from issues relating to substance abuse, studies show otherwise. Current research estimates that over one in ten adults in Canada have a substance abuse problem, and 76 per cent of these people are employed. The total cost of substance abuse to the Canadian economy in 2002 included $24.3 billion in productivity losses due to incidences such as accidents and injuries, on the job errors, absenteeism, tardiness, and employee morale. Whether an employee’s job involves high-risk, safety-sensitive activities or office-related processes, an employee’s addiction can put an organization at risk.

Identifying and dealing with employee substance abuse is not an easy task. It can challenge the most experienced managers, human resources and occupational health professionals. However, organizations and managers who are willing to help a struggling employee will realize many benefits, including: decreased absenteeism; a reduction in the number of times the employee arrived late or left early, increased productivity; decreased presenteeism. Studies also demonstrate the importance of an employer’s role in an individual’s recovery. Bellwood Health Services’ outcome studies show that 82 per cent of clients who were referred and supported by their employer were in high recovery when followed-up six months after completing residential addiction treatment.

One of the most effective ways to identify an employee addiction issue is to arrange for a specialized assessment to be completed by an addiction professional. While this is a valuable exercise for employees working in a safety-sensitive position, it is just as helpful in identifying issues relating to addiction in less “high-risk” roles and industries. Often referred to as safety-sensitive assessments or independent medical examinations, they can also be called workplace, corporate or executive assessments, and can be a useful tool for any position where there is a risk of accident or serious error. More and more organizations are using these types of assessments as a tool to pro-actively manage employee addiction issues in order to retain valuable employees.

By Susan McGrail, MSW, RSW, PhD (Can) and Julie Bowles

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