4 essentials of successful workplace drug, alcohol program

While the jury is still out on the value of drug and alcohol testing in the workplace, one testing expert says effective testing procedures should be a component within a more comprehensive fit-for-duty program.

In many instances, employers have not done a good job addressing the issue of alcohol and drug abuse in the workplace, mainly due to misinformation about the issue, according to Dan Demers, occupational health operations manager at occupational testing firm Cann Amm.

Workplace drug and alcohol testing must be designed as a tool for determining an employee's fitness for work, said Demers, speaking to attendees of the Health, Safety and Environment conference and tradeshow in Toronto last week.

While there is no law that allows nor prohibits workplace drug and alcohol testing in Canada, employers may impose drug and alcohol testing as part of a comprehensive fit-for-duty program for employees with safety sensitive positions, Demers said.

“The philosophy behind this program is to manage risk,” he said, noting any workplace drug and alcohol program is justified in Canadian courts when used as a means to keep the workers safe and healthy at work, he added.

If your company is considering or already running a fit-for-duty program that includes drug and alcohol testing, make sure some important requirements are satisfied.

1.    The necessity. Verify that a bona fide occupational requirement exists. Determine the criteria for imposing a drug and alcohol test. Testing employees in safety sensitive positions, after an incident has occurred (i.e. motor vehicle accident), or when there is reasonable suspicion (i.e. alcohol smell on worker), are some of the criteria for imposing drug and alcohol tests, Demers said.

2.    Non-discriminatory policy. Develop a written policy that serves as a guide for implementing the program and ensure that employees are trained on this policy and that they understand what the expectations are on their job. It is important to ensure that policies within the fit-for-duty program are non-discriminatory, said Demers. If an employee tests positive for drug or alcohol dependency, for example, the policy must contain procedures for dealing with positive results. The employee must be removed from the job, but provisions have to made by the employer to allow for treatment and getting them back to work as soon and as safely as possible, Demers said. Drug and alcohol addiction is considered a disability and therefore, an employer needs to provide accommodation, he added.

3.    Supervisor training. Supervisors need to be professionally trained to enable them to tell if a worker is under the influence of drugs or alcohol, said Demers. “Training supervisors to carry out the program is fundamental,” he said. Ensure that supervisors are documenting the incidents and what they have observed — this will help the employer in case of possible litigation arising from the incident.

4.    Fair and reliable testing results. Determining from the onset what types of testing are acceptable and what aren’t will help ensure your test results remain fair and reliable, said Demers. The same test should be administered for all the people involved in an incident. “Should the results be challenged, you have the ability to stand up in court and defend the results.” It is prudent to choose only legally defensible testing options.

There are three key factors that make for a trustworthy testing application, Demers said. Those that produce legally defensible results, conform with current standards, and ensure that the results are managed confidentially.

On-the-spot tests, according to Demers, are not always recommended as they may result in false positives or false negatives. But, in cases where instant testing is needed, make sure the samples are still sent to the lab for further testing.

Demers stressed the employer’s duty to accommodate in situations where a worker tests positive.

“Don’t just terminate them,” he said. “A positive result is too great a risk to be left unmanaged.”

Build accommodation procedures into the policy. When a worker tests positive, remove them from their task, have them sign a “condition of continued employment,” — a document that essentially states if the dependent worker undergoes evaluation and treatment, he may return to his job upon completion of the treatment. If the employee refuses to sign the document, that provides grounds for the employer to sever ties with the worker, explained Demers.