Root causes of substance use in Ontario sawmills identified

Lack of preventive tools, including policies, procedures and testing, number 1 cause

Root causes of substance use in Ontario sawmills identified

In June 2017, 15 people sat around a boardroom table at the Workplace Safety North headquarters in North Bay, Ont. Representatives from labour, management, government, non-profit organizations and front-line employees met to discuss the safety concerns they are seeing in Ontario’s sawmill industry. The question posed was “What keeps you up at night?” and the conversation flowed freely, with more than 80 risks identified. At the end of the day, the group agreed on a top 10 list of sawmill safety concerns. What took the number 1 spot? Substance use.

“We have younger workers that may have it still in their system from recreational use. We have older workers that because of health concerns have prescription medicines and have concerns associated with that. And there’s always other issues… such as alcohol and how that is carried over prior to work or from the weekend,” says Tom Welton, director of prevention services and education programs at Workplace Safety North (WSN). 

Substance use in sawmills is a concern to safety professionals due to the high-risk nature of the work being performed. The majority of jobs are safety sensitive and workers have to be fit for duty. If a worker is impaired, this can impact their judgment and job performance and lead to incidents. 

“It’s basically being of sound mind and able to do the task,” says Denis Desroches, president of Northern Safety Solutions in Sudbury, Ont. “If the mind isn’t on task, especially in sawmills, it can be very, very catastrophic. Typically, the accidents at sawmills are not small little cuts. It’s typically amputations, breaking of bones or fatalities.”

Whether it’s impairment from prescription drugs, medical marijuana, hard drugs or alcohol, any type of impairment can have serious safety consequences. Additionally, incidents caused by substance use can lead to low employee morale, poor company reputation, higher Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB) costs, possible Ministry of Labour charges and replacement worker costs. Plus, the resource industry can’t afford to lose any skilled talent these days, says Welton. 

“It’s very difficult to get experienced and effective workers in the workplace, so if you lose a worker, you are going to have a very difficult time replacing them — especially skilled labour — in a short period of time, and it can be a struggle over a long period of time depending on the isolation of where your location is,” he explains. “It becomes a major concern for supervision from that perspective.”


The report that came out of the Workplace Safety North workshop — Root Cause Analysis Report of Substance Use in Ontario Sawmills — identified the top causal factors of substance use. 

The number 1 cause was a lack of preventive tools, including policies, procedures and testing. Due to the fact that many workplaces have not recognized substance use as a high-potential issue for causing injuries, effective policies and procedures have not been a primary focus in some operations, says Welton. He encourages all sawmill companies to take a step back, regroup and review their policies and procedures in order to upgrade them and better meet the needs of their operations. 

It’s a good idea to involve workers in the drafting of the policy and procedures to boost engagement. It should be a collaborative process, says Sujoy Dey, corporate risk officer at the Ontario Ministry of Labour, who facilitated the workshop. 

“It’s giving them the comfort that ‘We are in this together.’ It’s a team thing,” he says. 

Eacom, which operates five sawmills in Ontario, has a zero-tolerance policy for substance use. The policy outlines the expectations of management and the steps that will be taken if an incident occurs or if impairment is suspected.

“We have some rigorous processes in place to prevent and address substance use in our workplace,” says Jocelyn Lagacév, health, safety and risk management manager at Eacom. 

The policy should be written in plain language, include relevant definitions and not leave room for interpretation. And having a written policy, rather than verbal, is crucial, stresses Desroches. 

“It’s hard to hold them to something that’s not written because everybody interprets it,” he says. “If it’s communicated verbally, you’ll take it a different way, I’ll take it a different way and all of a sudden we’ve got interpretation, we’ve got deviation — and you can’t afford that.”


When it comes to testing for drugs or alcohol, this can be part of the controls that sawmill employers use, but they have to be aware of privacy and human rights laws. WSN recommends that testing be “way down the line,” says Welton, and that employers try more proactive controls first.

“[It’s best to] address the concern early in the process so you never have to get to the drug testing.”

Desroches says a lot of employers are cautious about conducting testing, especially smaller companies, for fear of what it may reveal.

“It’s a tough one. Do you open that door and then most people, if they do have a problem, you’ve acknowledged a good percentage of your workplace has it. Now what do you do with the workforce? And how do you keep the doors open and maintain production? Especially in a sawmill, it’s production based; they need the wood going out the door,” he says.

Eacom conducts testing if it has reasonable doubt to suspect an employee is impaired, after a serious incident and if an employee is returning to work after receiving treatment for substance abuse. It does not conduct random testing. 


The policies around substance use — and when testing may occur — have to be well communicated to the workforce. Just having a policy on paper tells the workers nothing, says Dey.

“You have to talk about it. It is a sensitive topic; you just don’t know what that person is going through,” he says. “There’s a stigma around talking about impairment, substance use; nobody wants to talk too much about it.”

Toolbox talks or morning huddles are a great place to talk about your company’s policies and procedures around substance use. 

“That’s the perfect opportunity to reinforce the issue at the beginning of the shift and to bring the awareness that we don’t want to see anyone hurt for any reason, but if anyone is aware of concerns, they should be brought to the attention of the supervisor so we can take care of it and protect everyone in the workplace,” Welton says. 

Supervisors are generally reluctant to address issues related to substance use, so training on how to communicate effectively is another recommendation of the report. 

“It’s about talking to the individual, saying, ‘You seem out of sorts today, not your normal self. Is there anything we should talk about or anything I can help you out with?’ Just approaching it in a positive way… and knowing how to do that appropriately will definitely help in things moving ahead in a positive way, rather than getting pushback,” Welton says. 

If the supervisors are not strong communicators, it is difficult for the workforce to communicate with them, says Desroches. 

“Then we’ve got a gap in communication and a breakdown in what’s expected and clear communication in terms of what’s acceptable,” he says. “If there’s no communication, then it’s a very reactive scenario — once something happens, then we have a discussion.”

It’s extremely important for supervisors to toe the line and make sure their workforce understands that impairment will not be tolerated because they are the first line of defence, says Dey. 


The report also recommends specific training for supervisors on recognizing and dealing with impairment. Some signs of impairment include changes in behaviour or sudden swift mood changes as well as being easily angered, absent from work or excessively tired. 

“[Supervisors] have to be able to see the signs and deal with them, but we have to give them the tools to succeed,” says Desroches. “And if we don’t give them the tools, they aren’t going to see it. Maybe they have a different interpretation of what impaired is. They have to be clear on what it is.”

He adds that it’s not only the front-line workers who could have substance use problems — supervisors, managers, individuals on the board of directors and chief executives can be abusing drugs or alcohol as well.

“It’s not just the front-line workers that should be targeted here, it should be the whole organization. Right from the front-line to the top of the food chain, [they] are dealing with the same problems,” he says. “Typically, the ones at the top are dealing with the more harsh drugs because they can afford them.”

Eacom has a training program in place for its supervisors on recognizing behaviours that could lead to unsafe acts, which would include impairment by drugs or alcohol. They are trained on how to properly intervene, react and correct the situation, says Lagacév. Refresher training is offered on an annual basis. 

The report notes that awareness training on substance use as well as how to recognize the signs of impairment would be beneficial for all employees, not just supervisors. Eacom offers this type of training to its workforce.

“This is ongoing. We are giving some intel to the employees on what it is, there are the signs to recognize it and please let us know if there is something wrong,” Lagacév says. 


Eacom is very clear on its commitment to helping those workers who may be struggling with substance use. Not only does it have an employee assistance program (EAP), but it can offer even more resources to workers, if needed, Lagacév says. Dey agrees that showing support and compassion to workers is a key element.

“Everybody is different. If there’s a death in the family, people may use substances to cope and so there has to be that empathy, there has to be trying to understand and putting yourself in that person’s shoes,” he says. “But at the same time… having them understand if you are impaired, your cognitive functions are being compromised and if they are compromised, you might compromise health and safety.”

If a worker is impaired, the supervisor needs to remove them from the job so they will not injure themselves or anyone else, says Welton. This is where senior management support is needed. However, Welton cautions that sending the worker home is not always the best choice.

“Sending them for some support is a more appropriate route,” he says. “Sending them home to come back the next day and maybe be better for a week and then having the same situation doesn’t help them.”

If this situation keeps happening, then seeking help for the substance abuse can be made a job requirement. If the issue is still unresolved, there can be progressive disciplinary action.

“But that’s always the last step. You’re hoping you can help them early in the process so that it doesn’t get to that,” Welton says.

Yet another cause of substance use in sawmills identified by the report is social acceptance. The remote locations of many sawmills lends itself to substance use because the options for after-hours activities are limited, explains Desroches. It is even more widely accepted socially with the legalization of recreation cannabis. But Dey stresses that legalization is not acceptance — it’s two different things.

“Basically, what you’re doing in your personal life is OK, but once you walk into the workplace, when you’re handling these huge machines where your actions might hurt you or your co-worker… [It might be] accepted outside socially, but it does not automatically mean it is accepted in the workplace and definitely not in safety sensitive areas.”


The root cause analysis report recommends having an inventory of safety sensitive job tasks. Workers doing these jobs need to be alert at all times because any false movement can be catastrophic, Dey says. Supervisors should be double checking those high-risk jobs so they can catch anything that might impede safety. This practice is especially important in the sawmill industry.

“Some of the tasks that they have are very, very dangerous. If the mind is not on task, that could result in a very significant injury or fatality,” says Desroches, who stresses that safety is very high at sawmills. “They’ve got some huge equipment in there; lots of sharp knives and blades. It’s crazy to see what the process is in terms of turning that log into two-by-fours or two-by-sixes. It’s nuts. They have to be clear. They can’t be impaired. It just wouldn’t be a good outcome.”

Sawmills are not the only workplaces that need to take a hard look at substance use. In fact, Lagacév says the industry is not more or less impacted than others. Workplace Safety North has done a similar risk assessment in the logging industry and substance use came out as the number 2 safety concern. At press time, WSN was just starting to analyze the pulp and paper industry, too.

“If we want to prevent incidents, we need to really understand the systemic weaknesses because you may have different kinds of hazards. You may have so many hazards leading to injury and illness, but if all of them have a systemic commonality, for example, substance use… then we need to deal with it,” Dey says.

The workshop in 2017 provided a valuable perspective from the industry and really brought the issue of substance use to the forefront, which had perhaps been underestimated due to a lack of tracking. Whether it be employer injury reports, WSIB statistics, Ministry of Labour data or safety associations’ documents, substance use is not measured. Now that there is evidence that substance use is a big concern at sawmills, it’s time that it gets formally measured and tracked, says Dey. As the old adage goes, you cannot manage what is not measured, he says. 

“It’s watercooler conversation. It’s such a huge thing, so why aren’t we measuring it?” he asks. “A year from now, I don’t want to hear people saying, ‘We don’t have anything that measures substance use, we don’t have any indicators.’ No, that needs to stop.”

This article originally appeared in the October/November 2019 issue of COS.

Top 10 Health and Safety Risks in Ontario Sawmills

1 Substance use: Under the influence of drugs and alcohol in the workplace 

2 Training issues: Employees taking shortcuts 

3 Not properly locking out or guarding equipment 

4 Age: Inexperience of new, young workers who don’t see the dangers 

5 Psychosocial: Lack of focus, distraction of worker while performing duties 

6 Slips, trips and falls 

7 Occupational disease: Loss of hearing, ringing in the ears

8 Psychosocial: Stress, including job and family pressures 

9 Working from heights: Absence of engineered anchor points 

10 Caught in or crushed by mobile equipment

Source: Workplace Safety North