Is your alcohol and drug policy up to date?

Statistics on workplace alcohol and drug use

In a series of articles, Workplace Safety North reviews (1) Statistics regarding alcohol and drug use in Canada, (2) Legislation and balancing due diligence with privacy, (3) Policy development and implementation, and (4) Roles and responsibilities of supervisors and workers, plus resource information below.

With the legalization of marijuana in Canada, this is a good time to review your workplace health and safety policy regarding alcohol and drug use, and, if you don’t have a policy, it’s time to create one. 

Why a workplace policy is important

What if your job includes operating heavy machinery and a coworker shows up for their shift and smells like a distillery? Or you’re a supervisor and a worker calls to tell you they had their driving license suspended over the weekend? What exactly are employers, supervisors, and coworkers supposed to do when someone they are depending on in their workplace is clearly under the influence of alcohol or drugs?  It’s a sensitive subject that affects many Canadians. 

The Canadian Tobacco, Alcohol and Drugs Survey conducted in 2013 provides the most recent information on alcohol and drug use patterns for Canadian adults (age 15 or older), and includes the following highlights. The information predates changes in accessibility to marijuana for medical purposes; recreational use of marijuana remains illegal at this time, and has been linked to adverse mental health effects on younger people.

  • Alcohol is by far the most prevalent substance used by Canadian adults

    • 75.9 per cent of Canadian adults reported being current drinkers (past year);
    • Males are more likely to be current drinkers, to exceed the low risk drinking guidelines and report harm from drinking than females; and
  • Marijuana continues to be the illicit drug of choice

    • 10.6 per cent of Canadians report being current marijuana users;
    • Males (13.9 per cent) continue to be more likely than females (7.4 per cent) to be current users;
    • 48.6 per cent of those aged 15 to 24 report being current users, as do 8 per cent of those 25+;
    • 11.3 per cent of Canadians report using any drug (including pharmaceuticals to get high) in the past year, with males more likely (14.9 per cent) than females (7.9 per cent);
    • 19.9 per cent of current users report harm to self as a result of use.

Regarding the Canadian situation, the International Narcotics Control Board’s 2011 report also confirms prescription drug abuse is a significant problem in the U.S., Canada, and Mexico. 

Logging number one and mining number two for alcohol use

Brenda Stankiewicz, Public Health Nurse in Sudbury, Ont., often deals with people employed in resource industries like mining and logging. “In my research, I came across an article from 2000 that spoke to industry and alcohol use – it highlighted logging as number one and mining as number two. With underground mines, I’m aware that all types of drugs are being used, including alcohol, marijuana, prescription drugs, opioids and cocaine.”

“An issue of safety”

“I think it’s an issue most people don’t want to talk about. It’s a very sensitive thing, it seems," says Stankiewicz. "I would take the personal sensitivity out of it and the stigma around alcohol away from all of this and say: it’s an issue of safety for everybody else in the workplace, and you are responsible as a workplace to your employees. So somebody shows up impaired, or even slightly impaired, there could be harm caused, second-hand harm to people who are working around them.”

Each case is unique, according to Stankiewicz, “there’s no black and white around somebody’s use, or continuing to use. It does get really scary – for the worker, for respecting human rights, stigma, and abuse. If you were somebody with the regular experience of using and feel pressured, then your way of coping is to use a substance. If you feel that pressure of being stigmatized, are you going to go back to your old way of coping? It’s a very delicate balance.”

Stankiewicz is also sounding the alarm for a new threat: synthetic opioids. “It’s a very scary world out there. Synthetic opioids are a huge concern in Canada with the development of synthetic drugs like W18 and A4770 – I can’t even keep track of all the different names. We’re seeing a trend over the last eight to ten years with an increasing number of deaths from misuse of opioids. When it comes to street drugs you don’t really know what you’re taking; these synthetics are showing up in other drugs like fentanyl and marijuana and we can’t predict the effect on the user."

A recent BC study found that young people are not as concerned about driving high as compared to driving drunk. “Drugs fall into such a vast range of categories and implications for the human body that you can’t lump them all into one,” says Stankiewiecz. “The rules of the workplace are the same: you shouldn’t be using. Period.”

Conclusion: Fit for work vs. ‘the hangover effect’

Interestingly, statistics show that when it comes to alcohol and other drugs we cannot underestimate the influence of our behaviour while “off the job.” Many incidents occur “the morning after” when blood alcohol levels may still be high. When a worker is hungover and the senses are dulled from the ill effects of too much alcohol or drugs in the system – it’s prime time for workplace incidents to occur, especially if that worker operates machinery or equipment in safety-sensitive industries like mining and logging.

Researchers found a correlation “between the frequency of being ‘hungover’ at work” and other workplace events such as  feeling sick at work, sleeping on the job, and having problems with tasks or co-workers. In one study, the hangover effect was demonstrated by pilots tested in flight simulators. There was still “evidence of impairment 14 hours after pilots reached blood alcohol concentrations (BACs) of between 0.10 per cent and 0.12 per cent"…and that pilots were still significantly impaired eight hours after reaching a BAC of 0.10 per cent.

Every individual at a workplace has a personal responsibility to ensure the safety of themselves and others. Part of that responsibility is to encourage and help someone with an alcohol or drug problem to seek assistance through an employee assistance service or a supervisor. If that individual is putting themselves or others in danger, you have a responsibility to report that individual to your supervisor or leader. Based on usage statistics and legislation, the guiding principles of alcohol and drug policies continue to include a shared responsibility for safety; an understanding of how behaviour on and off the job affects safety; and balancing safety and privacy interests.

For more information, please contact


Substance abuse top health and safety risk at sawmills - WSN