Employers warned to take action now on safety issues before pot is legalized

There may be more safety issues that arise in the workplace once marijuana is legalized, says a drug and alcohol policy consultant in Nova Scotia.

Halifax Harbour Bridges reviewing its drug and alcohol policy as legal pot gets closer

Mike St. John is a painter at Halifax Harbour Bridges. It's considered the bridge commission's most dangerous job. (CBC)

For workers at Halifax Harbour Bridges, high up in the air is no place to be high. 

Workers climb up to the deck, walk across catwalks suspended 180 metres above water, operate power tools and avoid some of the 100,000 vehicles that cross the Macdonald and MacKay bridges every day.

Halifax Harbour Bridges is among employers in Nova Scotia gearing up for legal marijuana next year — and the concern that impaired workers might start showing up for work.

All workers at Halifax Harbour Bridges are required to adhere to a drug and alcohol policy. (Stephanie Clattenburg/CBC)

The bridge commission is reviewing its drug and alcohol policy, and training supervisors and managers on how to identify marijuana impairment and then follow up.

"If they're inattentive or in dizzyland somewhere, a fall is critical to us because now we've got a rescue in place," said Peter Hollett, the safety manager for Halifax Harbour Bridges.

The bridge commission has had a strict drug and alcohol policy in place for six years. Employees are educated about it and must sign off on it. Just as bridge employees would not show up for work drunk, Hollett doesn't expect they'll be stoned.

Peter Hollett took part in a recent training session for managers about marijuana legalization. (Steve Lawrence/CBC)

But he's concerned other employers on the East Coast — compared to the Alberta oil patch which has been on alert for drugs and alcohol for years — aren't ready for marijuana legalization.

"I just think that Maritimers are getting to the point where, 'Oh dear, this is something new to us,"' he said. "We've got a whole year until 2018, so start acting now."

'There may be more safety issues that arise'

Nadine Wentzell agrees many employers aren't going to be ready. She's a drug and alcohol policy consultant and is helping the bridge commission, along with about 30 other employers, to prepare for legalization.

"There may be more safety issues that arise in the workplace because of it," she said. "Employers may not understand how important it is to address it proactively."

Nadine Wentzell is a drug and alcohol policy consultant. She helps employers craft workplace policies. (Steve Lawrence/CBC)

Wentzell says marijuana impairment poses safety issues similar to alcohol. She advises clients to develop policies that are not punitive, and stress treatment if there's an addiction.

'It's not a gotcha type of policy'

At Halifax Harbour Bridges, suspected marijuana impairment is treated like other substances and involves many steps. If a manager sees signs of impairment or there's been an accident or near-accident, there's a conversation with the worker followed by drug testing and consultation with a medical review officer and an addictions expert. 

Halifax Harbour Bridges reviews its drug and alcohol policy annually. (Steve Lawrence/CBC)

If addiction is behind the drug use, a treatment plan is created. But if recreational pot use is to blame, a person could be fired. 

"It's not a gotcha type of a policy. It really is for the health and safety of everybody," said Alison MacDonald, a spokesperson for Halifax Harbour Bridges.

Fisheries also looking at marijuana impairment

Some employers in the fishing industry are also tackling the issue. Osborne Burke, the general manager of Victoria Co-operative Fisheries — a harvester and seafood processor in Neils Harbour — said company policy stipulates workers cannot consume drugs or alcohol within eight hours before their shift.

But he's concerned a worker could be burnt out and not focused, even after the eight-hour period. He said the company is looking at whether that part of the policy needs to be revised. 

Burke has already had a few issues with impaired employees, resulting in verbal warnings and suspensions. He said he believes other seafood industry employers are dealing with the same issues and says it's a "major concern."

"I think the federal government is rushing into legalization without giving consideration to the impact it will have for example on health and safety of employers," said Burke.

About the Author

Elizabeth Chiu

Reporter

Elizabeth Chiu is a reporter with CBC Nova Scotia and host of Atlantic Tonight on Saturdays at 7 p.m., 7:30 in Newfoundland. If you have a story idea for her, contact her at elizabeth.chiu@cbc.ca.