Addiction issues in the workplace can be highly complicated for both employees and employers. On the one hand, impairment at work can create liability issues if an employee cannot carry out their duties properly. In jobs involving dangerous equipment where physical safety is a primary concern, such as the construction or oil and gas industry, an employee’s impairment can put lives at risk. Employers are obligated to provide a safe working environment for employees under the provincial Occupational Health and Safety Act. In addition, addiction is a debilitating mental health issue protected under the Alberta Human Rights Act and needs to be treated with compassion and discretion.

In many cases, employees may be reluctant to disclose addiction problems due to embarrassment or fear of losing their job. Employers who suspect an employee is suffering from a substance abuse issue may wonder how to address it, particularly when the addiction affects the worker’s job performance.

Addiction & Impairment Policies: Setting the Stage for a Safe Workplace

One of the most important things an employer can do concerning addiction and impairment issues in the workplace is to develop clear policies that outline employees’ rights and responsibilities. Provincial guidelines under the Occupational Health and Safety Act suggest employers develop policies setting out:

  • What exactly is considered “impairment” in the workplace;
  • How incidences of suspected or overt impairment will be managed ;
  • An employee’s obligation to self-disclose drug or alcohol abuse issues and to work with the employer to obtain the necessary accommodations to receive treatment; and
  • An employee’s right to confidentiality with respect to disclosing impairment issues about themselves and others.

In addition, employers should work to cultivate a workplace culture where employees feel safe speaking up about their addiction issues. Accidents or catastrophic errors can be avoided when employees feel they can raise these concerns with their employer without fear of reprisal.

What if I Suspect an Employee Might Be Dealing with Addiction?

One of the primary concerns for any employer should be the safety of their employees and other people at the workplace. If a worker’s performance could place other parties at risk, an employer must investigate and act under the Occupational Health and Safety Act. If an employee is exhibiting careless behaviour that poses a safety risk, employers should immediately work to control the hazard by pulling the employee from performing any activity where they might present a risk to themselves or others.

One of the most challenging questions for an employer to address, aside from immediate safety concerns, is how to handle a situation when an employee is showing signs of possible addiction (or other mental health issues), and their performance has been negatively impacted.

What is an employer allowed to ask?

Under the provincial Human Rights Act, an employer should be cautious to only request information relevant to the employee’s job duties. If an employee has not self-disclosed addiction issues, an employer should keep discussions limited to their concerns surrounding the employee’s job performance. If an employee does disclose issues with substance abuse or impairment at work, the employer should still exercise caution and request only information that will be necessary to accommodate the employee. Topics such as the employee’s history with addiction or mental health issues or diagnoses from medical professionals may not be appropriate for this purpose.

An employer can gather relevant information from the employee’s health care provider to determine how to accommodate the employee’s addiction. As per the Canadian Human Rights Commission, the employer should ask the medical profession the following questions:

  • Whether the employee has a disability that requires accommodation;
  • If there are any restrictions or limitations to the performance of the employee’s job;
  • If a treatment plan has been developed, and if so, how it might affect the employee’s behaviour, attendance, performance, and schedule;
  • What prognosis the employee has;
  • If the employee is off work, whether there are specific recommendations for accommodation that will facilitate a safe and successful return to work;
  • If the employee is in a safety-sensitive position, whether the employee is medically fit to perform the job safely; and
  • If the employee is in a safety-sensitive position, whether any medication required by the employee may have side effects that prevent them from working in their safety-sensitive role.

What is my duty to accommodate an employee with addiction issues?

Employees diagnosed with addiction or substance dependency have the right to be accommodated to the point of undue hardship. Appropriate accommodations will vary by each case and must work for everyone – the Canadian Human Rights Commission points out that employees are not entitled to their ideal or preferred accommodation.

The Commission describes the following examples of accommodation measures that may be helpful in cases involving substance dependency:

  • Temporary or permanent changes to the employee’s schedule to accommodate treatment or meetings;
  • Adjusted hours or performance requirements as recommended by any applicable medical assessments or treatment plans;
  • Re-assignment to a position that is not safety-sensitive until it is safe to return the employee to their previous role; and
  • Sick leave (short or long-term) to attend treatment.

Developing an accommodation plan

The Canadian Human Rights Commission explains that the employer is responsible for developing an accommodation plan. When creating the plan, employers should collaborate with the employee and their union or employee representative.

The Commission recommends that the accommodation plan be put in writing and signed by all parties. It further states that the plan should set out the following:

  • The specific accommodation measures or solutions that have been agreed to, based upon the employee’s medical information;
  • The person the employee may go to with questions or concerns about the plan; and
  • Any changes in the employee’s job performance or behaviour that will be considered “significant” and require updated medical information;
  • If applicable, the terms of any return to work agreement specifying the conditions the employee has agreed to meet when returning to the workplace.

Accommodation plans must be flexible and allow for any treatment the employee requires (including those needed to address any relapses). The plan must also consider any other disability the employee may have.

Contact DBH Law for Skilled Representation in Workplace Disputes

The lawyers and staff at DBH Law in Calgary believe in relationship-building and fostering strong, long-term connections with our clients. This approach allows us to provide tailored and trusted advice to help employers and employees manage risks and reach their goals. To learn more about how we can help you, us online or by phone at 403-252-9937.