April 17, 2014

Alcohol addiction in the workplace can cause significant problems regarding employee health, workplace safety and overall productivity. In response, many employers have implemented policies and programs to prevent drinking at work, respond to alcohol-related incidents when they arise and provide assistance to alcohol-dependent employees. These efforts must be carefully balanced against employees’ privacy and human rights. In this audio session, leading labour and employment and social science experts will discuss alcohol testing in the workplace and the accommodation of addicted employees. Questions to be addressed include:

  • Treatment of alcoholism – what works? What are the modern theories and approaches to the treatment of alcoholism? What role does harm reduction play in the rehabilitation process? Is there a difference between alcohol abuse and alcohol dependency? How does the DSM-5 define substance use disorder and how might these criteria manifest regarding alcohol use? How are new treatments addressing the relationship between mental health issues and problems with alcohol? What are the benefits of having the employer involved in the design and progression of the treatment program in partnership with the rehabilitation facility?
  • Designing and implementing effective policies and programs: What are the cornerstones of any effective workplace substance abuse policy? Who should design the policy? How can a policy be designed to reflect the employer’s real occupational requirements and the realities of its operations? What is the role typically afforded to EAPs and do employees find them effective? What is the role typically assigned to Substance Abuse Professionals under modern-day policies? How should the union become involved in the regulation of substance abuse policies? What are some examples of joint employer-union policies and programs regarding alcohol abuse and dependency?
  • Testing and employee privacy: What are the different alcohol testing regimes that an employer may undertake and what is the legal status of each? In Irving Pulp & Paper Ltd., the Supreme Court of Canada stated that, in order to balance the employer’s interest in the safety of its operations against employee privacy, an employer cannot unilaterally subject employees to a policy of random alcohol testing, even in dangerous workplaces, unless there is evidence of a general problem in the workplace with alcohol abuse. After Irving, can random drug or alcohol testing in unionized workplaces in Canada ever be justified because a work environment is dangerous or a position is “safety sensitive?” What would constitute sufficient evidence of a “demonstrated” workplace problem or workplace culture that would justify the unilateral imposition by an employer of random testing? If a workplace problem exists, how long should a testing regime last and how should the scope be defined? What sort of incidents or accidents in the workplace will justify testing? Must they be of a significant severity? Is workplace testing proven to deter use or minimize the risks associated with alcohol abuse?
  • Meeting human rights responsibilities: When will an employee’s problems with alcohol constitute a disability under human rights legislation? How does the “hybrid approach” distinguish between culpable and non-culpable factors when assessing misconduct caused by alcohol addiction? What evidence is needed to establish a nexus between the impugned conduct and an alcohol addiction? How should the employer treat relapses by an addicted employee who is otherwise on the road to recovery? How can the parties determine the time period for compliance with a treatment program? Should an employer evaluate employee compliance through blood tests or through other methods? Are “last chance agreements” appropriate where an addicted employee is involved in a recovery program? Are “zero tolerance” policies defensible vis-à-vis misconduct related to an alcohol dependency?