OHS Canada Magazine

Coping with substance use in the Canadian workplace

It isn’t the role of a supervisor or manager to diagnose substance use or addiction, only to recognize impairment and respond according to the organization’s policies.


Oct. 17, 2021 will mark the four-year anniversary of the legalization of recreational cannabis in Canada. (Guruxox/Adobe Stock)

Canada’s legalization of cannabis in 2018 sparked a national conversation on substance use and the stigmas surrounding addiction.

As that conversation evolves, employers should review their policies and guidelines around substance use and educate their employees about the risks of working while impaired.

In doing so, they will create environments where workers feel safe and supported when asking for help.

To ensure these policies and guidelines are effective, it’s important to be aware of substance use in the workplace, and what the workplace can do to address possible impairment.   

Exploring the data behind substance use

According to the Canadian Mental Health Association, Ontario, an estimated 21 per cent of Canadians will meet the threshold for substance addiction during their lifetime.

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Showing employees how to recognize and report the signs of impairment in the workplace and giving them the confidence to ask for help with substance use is crucial to reducing the risk of injuries and even fatalities for themselves and fellow workers.

Stress, fatigue and injuries are some of the most common factors leading to substance use in the workplace. Other factors that can play a role can include repetitive duties, isolation, lack of opportunity to advance, high demand and low control over work, and long hours or irregular shifts.

Opioids, cannabis in the workplace

Cannabis and opioids are among the substances most frequently used in the workplace.

Opioids are prescribed to manage pain, including pain from injuries sustained at work. However, opioids can cause euphoria (feeling of being high), which increases the potential for the drugs to be used improperly.

According to the Canadian Substance Use Costs and Harms Scientific Working Group (2020) report: Canadian Substance Use Costs and Harms 2015-2017, in Canada, the cost of lost productivity from disability, absenteeism, and other effects of opioid use was $4.25 billion in 2017.

The short-term side effects of opioids include drowsiness, nausea, vomiting, euphoria, difficulty breathing, headaches, dizziness, and confusion. These effects may cause impairment and affect the ability to do jobs safely.

People working in construction, health care, and other physically demanding jobs experience a higher rate of injuries that often require pain management. This situation can leave workers vulnerable to dependence on opioids.

Employers should look for ways to prevent physical injuries from occurring in the first place. Educate workers on musculoskeletal disorders and back injuries to help them avoid movements likely to cause those injuries and let them know when a supervisor needs to be alerted to an unsafe environment or task.

In office environments and manufacturing, train employees on ergonomics and avoiding fatigue to help reduce the risk of injuries for which opioids might be prescribed.

Though the recreational and medicinal use of cannabis is legal — like alcohol, it can affect judgment, co-ordination, and the ability to think clearly.

Policies around impairment in the workplace should include cannabis, and workers should receive clear and regular communication about why cannabis-related impairment risks both their own safety and the safety of those around them.

Recognizing impairment and when to come forward

Substance-related impairment may look different for each person, but it often manifests in glassy or red eyes, slurred speech, unsteadiness or poor co-ordination, or the odour of alcohol or cannabis.

An impaired person’s judgment, alertness, depth perception and emotional state may impact their ability to work safely or make safety-sensitive decisions.

The after-effects of substance use, such as hangover, withdrawal, depression, or absenteeism can also affect job performance. Intervention is required if the employee is unable to perform their job safely or if their judgment or cognitive ability is impacted.

Note that it isn’t the role of a supervisor or manager to diagnose substance use or addiction, only to recognize impairment and respond according to the organization’s policies.

These steps may involve speaking to the employee in a private area to discuss their behaviour with one witness present, emphasizing that the concern is about safety for others and themselves and inviting the employee to explain what’s going on.

Based on the employee’s response, discuss the available options, and follow the steps outlined in your organization’s program.

State your concerns in an unbiased and factual manner. Do not place blame or make assumptions. Be clear that the intent is to maintain a safe working environment and that the organization is concerned for their well-being.

Try to anticipate the employee’s reaction so that you can be prepared. Identify any consequences if the issue continues and what steps must be taken.

In some cases, it may be necessary to assign non-safety sensitive work or to ask the employee to stop working. Arrange for a safe ride home. Do not let an impaired employee drive. And if applicable, notify senior management or a union representative.

Develop policies with transparency

To encourage early treatment and reduce safety risks, assure workers that they won’t be stigmatized and that their livelihood isn’t at risk if they ask for help. 

Promote the availability of confidential employee assistance programs (EAPs) to encourage workers to seek help for substance use issues.

Foster ongoing conversations on substance use and involve employees in the development of workplace policies. That way, they know they can expect consistency with how substance use is addressed, giving them added confidence to seek help for themselves or their co-workers.

A great place to start policy discussions is defining substance use and impairment. Employees need to know how to recognize impairment, when to come forward, who to report their concerns to, and what their rights to confidentiality are when they do come forward about themselves or their colleagues.

Make sure workers and supervisors are familiar with the available training and educational resources on topics such as prevention and resilience and fighting stigma.

Also let them know about any assistance available to workers struggling with substance use, and how use and impairment will be addressed in the workplace.

Overcoming stigma

Stigma is any attitude, belief or behaviour that discriminates against people, which can often include workplace policies and the language used within them.

Stigma surrounding use, addiction and recovery is powerful, and often prevents people who use substances from seeking help for fear of appearing unreliable or weak. They may also fear losing their jobs.

To create an environment where workers struggling with substance use feel comfortable coming forward, check policies for stigmatizing language and update them with empathetic and neutral alternatives.

Acknowledge the various forms of impairment without adding value judgments.

Emphasize that substance use is something that can affect all levels of an organization and provide training on recognizing signs of impairment and how to respond appropriately.

Include and inform employees about accommodations and return-to-work options. Make them aware of resources and where they can go to for help.

One of the most impactful ways to support employees is to model person-first language when speaking about it.

Words matter — you can help support workers who are struggling, while breaking down stigma with each conversation you start.


The Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (CCOHS) promotes the total well-being — physical, psychosocial, and mental health — of workers in Canada by providing information, advice, education, and management systems and solutions that support the prevention of injury and illness.

For more information, visit:

This CCOHS Corner feature appears in the September/October 2021 issue of OHS Canada.


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