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Workplace Safety: Impact of Lockdowns On Cannabis Use, By Rhys Evans

We shouldn’t judge people too harshly under the current conditions. But their choices still translate into a potential problem for employers.

Workplace Cannabis Use

The global pandemic and resultant lockdown have impacted businesses and the lives of people significantly, with stringent measures in place including those that would curb drinking alcohol. However, we have seen the opposite effect when it comes to narcotics with an increase in use post lockdown.

Though the evidence is still very anecdotal, it suggests a jump in drug usage among more people. Users of casual drugs have reported increasing their doses or even switching to harder drugs. There are also signs that some cigarette smokers have turned to cannabis when cigarettes were banned.

Read Also: HSEQ Career: He’s A Good Worker, Let’s Just Keep Him Happy, By Olawale Ogunyebi

As people start returning to work, organisations should factor in the increased risk of illicit drug use among their employees. They may have picked up some bad habits during the harder lockdown periods, stemming from boredom, unavailability of legal substances, or to be sociable during very socially-challenging times. We shouldn’t judge people too harshly under the current conditions. But their choices still translate into a potential problem for employers.

The most widely-encountered form of screening is the mandatory alcohol breathalyser presented at the entrances of factories, warehouses, mines and other industrial sites. This test is very brief and easy to apply, and other than the upfront cost of the equipment, it is a very economical way to ensure alcohol rules aren’t broken.

But other drugs can’t be tested for using breathalysers, which has made companies reluctant to implement more extensive drug testing. Yet the influence of the lockdown on people’s drug habits is prompting them to reconsider their position. The question is: how can they go about this smartly and affordably?

I’ll address both concerns here. What does it mean to test for drugs smartly? A company must have clear policies and procedures, dictating when tests are done, for what reasons, and who is authorised to do so. There must be consideration for cross-reactions – when someone took a legal substance that might give a false positive. For example, if someone used mouthwash which is then flagged by a breathalyser. Usually doing a second test, and testing a neutral party at the same time, can address such scenarios. There should also be a policy around presenting prescriptions or allowing an employee’s healthcare provider to weigh in on their results.

Smart testing also has to consider the rapidly legalising position of cannabis. Employees can imbibe this narcotic in their private capacity, which can be an issue for some testing. For example, urine tests will spot marijuana use dating back days and even weeks. But saliva tests can narrow usage down to the past few hours. So, using the right type of test will greatly enhance results and reduce false accusations.

The third point on smart testing relates to this not being a witch hunt. There are ‘bad apples’ in every workplace, but not every employee who acts irresponsibly is one of those. Involving unions from the start to discuss drug testing policy is very help-ful to create positive buy-in. Compassion and con- text are also important, reinforced by a culture of accountability and responsibility.

Random drug tests are a potent way to establish the company’s position on the matter. If the tests are done in a way to exclude whatever employees do in private, it can lead to a proactive culture. This approach should be coupled with an education campaign to explain the health and safety risks on the job when drugs become involved. But drug tests cost money, and in a depressed economy, companies do not want to know about escalating costs. Unlike breathalysers, other drug test kits work once-off. At the cost of between R100 ($6.70) and R200 ($13.4) per test, that can compound quickly into a significant amount. But not if one considers the following two factors.

Not every employee needs to be tested. Tests can be random or focus on circumstances such as suspicion of drug use…

Rhys Evans is the Managing Director of ALCO-Safe. This article originally appeared in the African OS&H Magazine.

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