How To Spot Impairment In The Workplace

How to spot impairment in the workplace

It is not always as easy as you would think to spot impairment in the workplace. Many employers simply don’t have (or haven’t been given) adequate tools for dealing with suspected cases of on-the-job impairment. Or, in the worst-case scenario, employers simply ignore it altogether; turning a blind eye to the issue. But with the right training and a sound policy, impairment in the workplace can be spotted, managed and successfully eliminated.


From the accounting department to those working with heavy equipment, the truth is this: An impaired worker poses a risk to your company’s interests. Period. Not only are they less productive, mistakes can lead to fiscal errors, a deterioration of customer relations, and, in the most severe cases, injury or even death. If an impaired employee is responsible for causing a serious accident in the workplace that results in injury or loss of life, results are twofold; in addition to the harm caused, under Bill C-45, it can result in catastrophic legal consequences for managers and supervisors.


I have worked as a consultant for over 20 years, lending my expertise to companies in the forestry, transportation and resource extraction sectors, among others. During this time, I have discovered that many managers and supervisors are intimidated by the prospect of intervening with an employee who is suspected of being impaired. More than anything else, most of these people are apprehensive because the company has failed to establish solid guidelines as to what constitutes reasonable suspicion.


If a supervisor or HR Manager has reasonable suspicion, the process of determining whether or not an employee is impaired should be no more difficult than any other type of investigation or disciplinary process and the drug and alcohol test will determine this. But, how do you establish reasonable cause?

Over the years, I have developed a system called SOBA. Among other things, it includes a catalogue of potential warning signs. Covered extensively in my training sessions, SOBA refers to: Speech, Odour, Behaviour, and Appearance. During an investigation, the employee’s SOBA can be assessed and, if in contrast to their normal state, all the more powerful. This may require further investigation, including drug and alcohol testing, but medical conditions such as head injury or diabetes must first be ruled out.


Depending on the type of substance used, some factors are far more obvious than others. If, for example, you detect what you believe to be the odour of alcohol, this can be confirmed by way of an Evidential Breath Testing unit (a Breathalyzer®) which is capable of determining impairment based on legally accepted principles and specific cut off levels. On the other hand, if an employee is exhibiting suspicious behaviour such as slurring their words or behaving in an erratic manner, they must be removed from the job site first before any further investigation can be carried out.


The key to success when dealing with impairment in the workplace is to have a sound, legally defensible AND up to date policy, as well as a well-trained supervisory staff to implement it. While drug and alcohol testing can help to solidify investigations and uncover potential threats, a well written, legally compliant policy is, without question, your first and most important line of defense.

Keeping your workplace and employees safe is your legal duty, but it also makes sense for the bottom line. If you would like to talk safety, or to find out more about our consulting practice, contact us for a consultation today.

About: Tom Yearwood

Tom Yearwood, LLB is the Founder and President of Denning Health Group, a provider of turnkey drug and alcohol testing services, which includes policy development and supervisor training. Tom has over 20 years of experience working with some of Canada’s largest employers.


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