EHN Canada


Addiction and Safety-Sensitive Assessments

In our previous post, we explored the topic of addiction in the workplace and safety-sensitive assessments. In this article we delve deeper – we examine the differences between regular addiction assessments and safety-sensitive assessments; how a safety-sensitive assessment is conducted; and finally the value-benefit for employers.

The Difference between Regular and Safety-Sensitive Addiction Assessments

A regular addiction assessment considers a wide range of information about an individual when identifying the presence of an addiction. The types of relevant information include the person’s history relating to: vocation; childhood; relationships and family; academics; medical issues; financial issues; substance use, etc. This type of assessment could be initiated following a history of documented behavioural problems in the workplace, suggesting a substance use problem, or it could be initiated in response to a personal or family incident.

On the other hand, a safety-sensitive or corporate assessment is usually triggered by a precipitating event in the workplace: a forklift is driven off a shipping dock; a chartered accountant’s miscalculation causes a major financial loss for a client; an electrician leaves live wires exposed; a nurse gives the wrong medication to a patient; a CEO arrives impaired at a shareholder meeting.

Incidents and observations a manager should be aware of that would indicate there could be a safety-related problem include:

  • Being impaired, hung over or in withdrawal from drugs while at work
  • Actions that could be a safety hazard to him or herself or others (e.g. sound judgement, mental acuity and alertness are compromised)
  • An individual covering up for accidents rather than openly assuming responsibility
  • Co-workers covering up and taking up the slack for their colleague


How a Safety-Sensitive Assessment is Conducted?

This in-depth assessment is usually conducted by a psychologist and an addiction physician and delves into greater detail about the employee and the situation that led to the assessment. The details of the precipitating event and the nature of the job are looked at to determine the degree of risk created by the employee with the substance abuse problem. A detailed substance abuse history is taken, including a variety of laboratory toxicology tests. The person’s psychiatric history is considered as well as other mental health risk factors. The assessment also looks at the individual’s current relationship with his or her employer and the level of motivation for treatment. Based on the assessment results, the final report to the employer will indicate whether or not there is a substance abuse problem and outline recommendations for treatment. Depending on the level of use or abuse, the recommendations can include:

(1) No substance abuse problem identified
The incident could have been the result of a one-time error, or lapse of judgement on the part of the employee. In this case, the recommendation would be for the employee to return to work.

(2) Education and Monitoring
This could involve participation in an addiction education program to raise the employee’s awareness of addiction and its physical, psychological and social effects, combined with a monitoring program.

(3) Outpatient Treatment
Options can include individual counselling, group therapy, and support groups such as a 12-step program, like Alcoholics Anonymous.

(4) Family Program
This is a program that provides education and counselling for family members of those suffering from an addiction and can also be beneficial to the employee.

(5) Residential Treatment / Detox
A recommendation for a residential treatment program with or without detox can range in length from as few as three weeks up to many months. The recommended program length would depend on the individual’s history and personal situation, as well as the program model of the treatment centre. If required, detox can take various forms, including home detox, community-based services, and private services as part of a treatment program.

It is important that the organization providing the assessment liaise with the employer at all stages of the assessment. The recommendations given to the employer should be coordinated with all relevant departments, including occupational health, human resources, and management. This cooperation and communication will lead to the best possible result for all parties involved.

The Value of Safety-Sensitive and Corporate Assessments

There are many reasons for utilizing these types of high-level assessments to identify and manage workplace addiction issues. Employers have a moral and legal responsibility to ensure that their employees are healthy and have a safe work environment. Legislation and legal obligations to safeguard employee well-being while on the job ensure that addiction-related issues are identified, addressed and managed through alcohol and drug policies, employee assistance programs, and varying levels of treatment support. Identifying an addiction issue through a safety-sensitive or workplace assessment provides important documentation should a safety investigation, disciplinary or termination action be necessary, or if a lawsuit develops.

The assessments also make good business sense. Addiction in the workplace can be extremely detrimental to productivity and morale. Identifying the problem and helping with a solution will boost the company’s bottom line and the overall morale within the organization. It will also help avoid customer satisfaction issues resulting from employee errors or behaviours.

Finally, perhaps the most important reason for utilizing these assessments is a genuine concern for an employee’s health and well-being. Organizations that follow a philosophy of placing an employee’s needs ahead of those of their business shall be rewarded many times over with healthy employees, satisfied customers and a safe and productive workplace.

By Susan McGrail, MSW, RSW, PhD (Can) and Julie Bowles

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