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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:


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

Addiction in the workplace and Safety-Sensitive Assessments

From big rigs to balance sheets – Addiction and safety sensitive assessments know no bounds

Safety. Not many workplace issues have caught the attention of employers in the past few years, as has the issue of safety. This is not surprising given that workplace safety impacts employees, customers, and the general public. Corporate responsibility to employees and other stakeholders, as well as government regulations, have led to the creation of new policies, procedures, committees, and specialized fields within the human resources and occupational health professions. Workplace safety is now viewed as an indicator of a positive work environment. In fact, companies promote their track records of “accident-free work-days” and reward employees for their roles in maintaining a safe workplace.

For many people, obvious thoughts of workplace safety include hard hats, safety boots, safety glasses and hearing protection. Construction is often the first type of job to come to mind where safety is a priority, because our understanding of safety is frequently related to the dangers of heavy or falling objects, and hazards such as heights. In contrast, people working in other environments and industries such as healthcare, retail and business are less likely to think about potential safety hazards when they arrive for work each day. However, many of the causes of workplace injuries are just as likely to be found in a law firm, as in a manufacturing plant. These causes include fatigue, stress, slips, lifting, trips and falling objects. While the resulting incident may not lead to an injury, an accountant’s miscalculation or a teacher’s classroom behaviour can have far-reaching implications and therefore may be deemed just as serious. As a result, workplace safety needs to be a priority regardless of how risk-free a job appears to be.

Addiction in the Canadian Workplace
While workplace safety mishaps can occur at any time, the likelihood of the above-mentioned scenarios is compounded when an employee suffers from a substance abuse problem. While many employers believe that they are immune from issues relating to substance abuse, studies show otherwise. Current research estimates that over one in ten adults in Canada have a substance abuse problem, and 76 per cent of these people are employed. The total cost of substance abuse to the Canadian economy in 2002 included $24.3 billion in productivity losses due to incidences such as accidents and injuries, on the job errors, absenteeism, tardiness, and employee morale. Whether an employee’s job involves high-risk, safety-sensitive activities or office-related processes, an employee’s addiction can put an organization at risk.

Identifying and dealing with employee substance abuse is not an easy task. It can challenge the most experienced managers, human resources and occupational health professionals. However, organizations and managers who are willing to help a struggling employee will realize many benefits, including: decreased absenteeism; a reduction in the number of times the employee arrived late or left early, increased productivity; decreased presenteeism. Studies also demonstrate the importance of an employer’s role in an individual’s recovery. Bellwood Health Services’ outcome studies show that 82 per cent of clients who were referred and supported by their employer were in high recovery when followed-up six months after completing residential addiction treatment.

One of the most effective ways to identify an employee addiction issue is to arrange for a specialized assessment to be completed by an addiction professional. While this is a valuable exercise for employees working in a safety-sensitive position, it is just as helpful in identifying issues relating to addiction in less “high-risk” roles and industries. Often referred to as safety-sensitive assessments or independent medical examinations, they can also be called workplace, corporate or executive assessments, and can be a useful tool for any position where there is a risk of accident or serious error. More and more organizations are using these types of assessments as a tool to pro-actively manage employee addiction issues in order to retain valuable employees.

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