Prescription Medication in a Safety-Sensitive Workplace: Duty to Accommodate

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16 January 2023 >> , , , ,

Prescription Medication in a Safety-Sensitive Workplace: Duty to Accommodate

Prescription Medication in a Safety-Sensitive Workplace: Duty to Accommodate

TAKEAWAY: Prescription medications can be a significant problem for workers in safety-sensitive positions. Here is what employers need to know.

By Jennifer Crump

In a recent National Safety Council survey, 86% of employers reported concerns that prescription drug use negatively impacted their workplace. They may have a good reason. According to Statistics Canada, 23% of Canadians aged 15 years and older use psychoactive pharmaceuticals, and in the United States, over 16 million Americans admit to abusing prescription drugs. 

Prescription medications can be an even more significant problem for workers in safety-sensitive positions. Here is what employers need to know. 

What is a safety-sensitive workplace?

A safety-sensitive workplace is one in which an employee is responsible for their safety or the safety of others. The term also refers to jobs in which a worker impaired by drugs or alcohol could put themselves or others at risk of injury. 

In a safety-sensitive job, drug or alcohol impairment could result in significant injury to the employee and others in the area. Lack of attention in a safety-sensitive position can result in an incident that adversely affects the health or safety of employees, contractors, customers, the public, or the environment. These types of incidents can negatively impact a company’s financial position or reputation. Examples of safety-sensitive jobs include operating heavy machinery, driving on public roads or handling dangerous chemicals. 

What are the dangers of taking prescription medication while working in a safety-sensitive position?

The legality of prescription drugs makes them more challenging to deal with in the workplace than illegal drugs. However, they can be equally dangerous. Even if used legitimately, prescription drugs can have serious side effects that may induce dizziness, nausea, hallucinations, or an inability to remain alert. These effects can decrease productivity and increase errors. However, these same side effects in safety-sensitive positions also dramatically increase the risk of injury or death.

What is the duty to accommodate employees with disabilities under human rights legislation?

The duty to accommodate exists under Canadian and provincial human rights legislation and U.S. legislation, including the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). However, these laws vary widely with respect to what and how employers must accommodate disabilities in the workplace. Essentially, this legislation is a guideline that ensures employers provide job prospects and employees with any additional support they may need to allow them to participate fully in the workplace to the extent that it does not impose an undue hardship on the employer.

Under Canadian human rights laws, employers may be required to accommodate an employee taking prescription medications or developing an addiction. Prescription drugs can adversely affect a worker in a safety-sensitive job and put the worker and others at risk. In these situations, the employer, employee, and potentially union all have an obligation to address the issue. Possible accommodations could include a transfer to a non-safety sensitive position, reduced work hours or even short and long-term medical leaves.

However, it is essential to note that these accommodations must work for everyone. The employer’s duty to accommodate under all existing legislation is limited if it causes undue hardship to the employer. Changes to a policy, practice, by-law or physical space that would cost too much or create health or safety risks, for example, could negate the employer’s duty to accommodate.

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Fitness-to-Work Testing & Accommodation: How it Works

SureHire’s fitness-to-work testing program helps employers make important determinations around employee accommodation on the job. Results are reviewed by a team of SureHire’s trained healthcare professionals, including physiotherapists, chiropractors, athletic therapists, and physicians. 

All results are issued using a level 1-5 assessment scale. Depending on the result issued, SureHire may recommend work accommodations and/or restrictions related to the findings noted during testing.

Want to learn more? Contact us today and speak with a member of our team!

How can employers create a policy that accommodates employees with disabilities while maintaining a safe work environment?

Employers should have a medical disclosure policy in place for safety-sensitive positions if they believe using certain prescription drugs could threaten safety. This policy should not be too broad and should be limited to employees in specific safety-sensitive positions. It should also include only those prescription medications that pose a safety risk.

In addition to the medical disclosure policy, employers should create an accommodation policy and educate employees with respect to both the policy and the procedures for requesting accommodation. This open approach ensures employees understand how a request for accommodation is made but also encourages employees to disclose suspected safety risks.

The workplace accommodation policy should include procedures that identify the following:

  • Who informs employees and job applicants about their accommodation rights
  • Who can employees approach to request accommodations
  • How requests are processed, including who has the authority to implement accommodations and who is responsible for financial decisions related to accommodation
  • Who has responsibility for decisions concerning questions of undue hardship?
  • How an appeal process works when an employee or job candidate is refused accommodation
  • Training requirements for staff that are responsible for workplace accommodation policy and procedures
  • Review procedures for accommodation policies and procedures, including responsibilities for review and a timeline

What to do if you are an employee who needs accommodation in the workplace?

Employees are responsible for working safely and understanding that using prescription medications can pose health and safety risks to themselves or others. Additionally, employees are responsible for reporting any circumstance that could pose a safety risk to themselves or others.

Although employers can and should offer accommodation to workers who need it, the employee also must request accommodations if needed. The employee is also obliged to participate in the accommodation process, which means providing the employer with enough information to make an accommodation possible. This request is best made in writing and should include (as necessary) the following:

  • The provision of the Code on which the employee is requesting accommodation
  • Reason for requesting accommodation
  • Information to confirm the existence of a need for accommodation.
  • Suggestions of possible accommodation measures

Employees can also provide additional documentation to support their request to expedite the accommodation. This documentation might include, for example, medical notes from a physician. 

Are there resources for employers and employees on prescription medication and the workplace?

Here are a few of our favourites: 

1.A Guide to Accommodating Substance Dependence

2. Substance Use in the Workplace – CCOHS Guide 

3. SAMHSA Drug Testing Resources 

4. CMHA Impairment in the Workplace

5. Ontario Human Rights – The Duty to Accommodate

6. Contact SureHire

Additional SureHire Resources:

Accommodating Chronic Illness

Duty to Accommodate

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