Safety association calling for workplace prohibition
About one year from now, cannabis will likely be legal in Canada — a fact that has Enform and its CEO very worried.
“We have heard from some of our employers people are associating legalization with safety… but just because it’s legal doesn’t mean it’s safe,” says Cameron MacGillivray, president and CEO of Enform, the safety association for Canada’s upstream oil and gas industry. “There’s this confusion and also this tendency for people who would not normally try a substance to try it when it becomes legal.”
The federal government introduced the Cannabis Act on April 13. It set July 1, 2018, as the date cannabis will be legalized throughout the country, assuming it makes it through the legislative process. The bill did not touch on anything related to occupational health and safety — nor did the ministers in the accompanying press conference — but it did say that regulations could be introduced with respect to “smoking in a workplace.”
“We thought they were amazingly silent on the concerns around safety in the workplace,” says MacGillivray. “We think that’s a big miss.”
Legalization is particularly concerning for the oil and gas industry. Over the last decade, drug and alcohol use has been a “pressing safety concern” and a continuing challenge for oil and gas employers, MacGillivray says. Due to the safety sensitive nature of the job, a worker’s use of drugs, including marijuana, has the potential to create serious safety risks.
“Imagine a gas plant or big oil production facility, a refinery, pipeline, if somebody is incompetent because of impairment, there could be a catastrophic failure in those kinds of operations. So the impact would not only be on themselves but on their fellow workers and on surrounding communities,” MacGillivray says.
Cannabis can affect short-term memory, decision-making, hand-eye co-ordination, alertness and response times, which can all be problematic in safety sensitive workplaces.
Of particular concern is the fact that the impact of marijuana can extend over a long period of time. Studies have found that performance deficits
can last up to two days after the use of low doses of marijuana.
“Unlike alcohol which is expelled from a person’s system in a predictable way, marijuana is not. It’s more difficult to predict how long it will take it to leave your system, how long you may be impaired by it,” says MacGillivray.
In its submission to the federal government’s Task Force on Cannabis Legalization and Regulation, Enform referenced a 2006 study out of the United Kingdom that found cannabis use was associated with “significant detrimental impacts on safety.” Those who admitted to using cannabis had a 34 per cent increase in work-related incidents and a 17 per cent increase in minor injuries at work.
The study also found work-related road collisions increased three-fold amongst marijuana users. Driving under the influence of cannabis is something that worries MacGillivray “tremendously.”
“There’s a lot of driving in our work: to and from the workplace, long hours, long shifts, a lot of driving not only normal vehicles but heavy equipment and things of that nature,” he says.
All employers have a legal obligation to ensure the safety of their workers. They are required to mitigate workplace hazards, including those associated with drugs. Incidents could result in civil and criminal liability for negligence.
“We are trying to marry the legal obligation to protect our workers and those around them with the impact of legalization of marijuana,” MacGillivray says.
Enform would like to see more guidance from the government, such as clarification around acceptable workplace practices to measure competence. For example, while a test showing blood alcohol levels of 0.08 indicates an inability to drive, a similar correlation has not yet been made for marijuana. Until testing versus impairment level can be well established, Enform is advocating if cannabis is detected in somebody’s system, that individual should be prohibited from working in a safety sensitive position.
“Marijuana use is incompatible with working in a safety sensitive environment. Until there is clear evidence and a complete understanding of what level of impairment is deemed to be considered ‘safe’, a zero tolerance policy regarding the presence of marijuana is the only safe choice,” says MacGillivray.
Enform is calling on the provinces to work together to harmonize their strategies, as the federal government has given considerable power to the provinces in this legalization.
“Can you imagine if every province has a different age, for example, which is feasible, or a different way of approaching the OH&S requirements and restrictions and regulations for the workplace? For employers that’s very difficult, for workers that’s very difficult,” MacGillivray says.
Enform would like to see a prohibition for the use, storage, sale and possession of cannabis in the workplace. It is also advocating for an express prohibition on using marijuana in close proximity to attending work on a safety sensitive work site.
MacGillivray has been impacted by a fair amount of workplace tragedies in his life and this has driven him to do whatever he can to prevent any more. When he was completing his masters in engineering in soil and rock mechanics at Dalhousie University in Halifax in the late 1970s, his 20-year-old neighbour died on the job when an excavating pit caved in.
Prior to joining Enform, MacGillivray managed several projects in the oil and gas industry. One incident in particular has stuck in his mind. It was Christmas Eve and the owner of a small service company got a call from a client that there was a problem with their well. The man didn’t want to send out one of his staff on Christmas Eve so he went to the site by himself. It was cold and he was in a hurry so he did something should not have done: he used a heater to heat up the pressure vessel and it blew up and killed him.
“That’s the sort of thing that stays with you… Those kinds of things have driven home in me the importance of safety,” he says.
These experiences shaped MacGillivray’s interest in being a part of Enform. He believes the association’s greatest strength is that it brings all sectors together to talk about safety, such as issues around marijuana legalization. And as the year unfolds and regulations come to light, Enform will certainly be keeping the conversation going with the boots-on-the-ground service companies, large oil producers, government and the regulators.
“It’s a forum for those kinds of discussions,” MacGillivray says. “We do a lot of work discussing with the regulators what our concerns are about safety, understanding their perspective and (explaining) the way we see it going forward.”
This article originally appeared in the June/July 2017 issue of COS.