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Workplace Substance Use and Harm Reduction.

25th April 2022

Workplace substance use and harm reduction are topics that workplaces have long had to manage.  Substance use is all around us, day in and day out.  It’s in our lives, our communities, our homes, and our work places.

Many Canadians use alcohol to take the edge off a long week, cannabis to relax with friends on the weekend, or during the week for medical reasons.  Then we have the illegal drugs which are more and more often tainted with fentanyl and are claiming lives from within our communities with more and more regularity.

Some might say there is a hidden epidemic in BC. From 2019 to end of January 2022 BC has lost 5188 men and women to illicit drug overdose. In comparison 2990 people died in BC from COVID.

Yet harm reduction (versus prohibition) has been a concept for substance misuse for decade.

The opioid epidemic, and a tainted drug supply are taking lives, not just from the homeless, but from our schools, homes, marriages, families, and our workplaces.  Our younger workers  may be at a higher risk due to pandemic stress, and mental health challenges.

Employer Solutions

As employers what  needs to be considered when it comes to workplaces, substances, and harm reduction?   We spoke to Colby Young, Tailgate Toolkit Program Lead with the Vancouver Island Construction Safety Association about wellness in the workplace, substance use and harm reduction in the workplace, through their tailgate toolkit program.

Colby will be speaking at our Wellness In The Workplace event this Wednesday April 27th there are a few spaces left, so if you’re in Nanaimo, click here for more info and to register to join us.

What is wellness in the workplace to you?

I see wellness at work as an acknowledgement from an employer that we’re not always going to be in a good place where we are “well”.  Especially during the COVID-19 pandemic as employers and employees worked through the challenges of the last 2 years.

Continual exposure to aspects of our life that impact our wellness can wear down our resilience, and create negative outcomes.

Wellness in the workplace is the employer taking the responsibility to create a positive work environment to help us navigate the crossover between challenges in our personal and work lives, and to support more positive outcomes where these challenges exist.

Aspects such as employee benefits, assistance plans, and construction rehabilitation plans can add value, if employers adopt some of these wellness aspects into the workplace.

Traditionally safety has considered physical safety, we’re starting to see more focus on wellness aspects such a nutrition, mental health, exercise, and sleep management.  Do you see more focus on tougher topics like workplace substance use and particularly  harm reduction?

Yes, in construction I do.  Harm reduction in particular is a tough subject to broach.

We have members asking us to come and speak to their teams, and to take part in supervisor training.  These are encouraging signs, however there is certainly still resistance, but I’m amazed by how many companies have taken us up on our program.

More broadly there are other companies looking to bring harm reduction into the private sector.  For example Each + Every is an organization in Alberta that has worked with businesses in Alberta and B.C. to bring a focus to substance use and harm reduction in the workplace.

Photo by MART PRODUCTIONHarm reduction has been around for a long time.  What would you say is the biggest barrier in implementation/adoption of a harm reduction approach in the construction industry?

There are a few barriers to consider around substance use and harm reduction.


Misconceptions around what harm reduction is, is one of them.  People believe it’s encouraging, or enabling substance use.  In its simplest definition harm reduction is focused on reducing the degree of harm.

Just like in construction safety, if we can’t eliminate or reduce the risk of the activity, in this case substance use, then we have to look at minimizing the harmful impacts.  We have risk assessments, engineered controls, training, and PPE to reduce risk in construction.  The same holds true for substance use.  If we can’t prevent use, then how can we reduce harm?

Harm Reduction In The Workplace

Another significant challenge comes from workplaces not understanding how harm reduction, and the concept of workplace safety can co-exist.

Due to the misconception that harm reduction encourages or enables substance use, many feel that we condone workplace use. In reality, harm reduction can be as simple as providing our team members with information and education on how to use substances more safely (i.e., where is drug checking available or providing naloxone training). Furthermore, having access to supports for mental and physical health in the workplace is harm reduction.

In our industry, we have a zero-tolerance policy for substance use that often results in termination. This is due to the very real and valid concerns for workplace safety, however, in addition to providing education and awareness, our program looks to provide options for employers to encourage staff to get help and safely return to work.

The reality is that the use of substances in the workplace exists and while it’s important to continue to focus on eliminating substance related workplace impairment, there’s also a need to focus  on the wellness of our workers, both on and off the worksite.

Not Us

Photo by MART PRODUCTIONAnother challenge is that many people don’t see substance use, addiction, or other related issues as their issue.  They see this as an issue related to displaced, mentally ill, or homeless populations.

The reality is that substance use is happening to people we know.  This is people in residential homes in our communities and neighbourhoods that are dying, particularly from a tainted drug supply.

Tell us about your project.

Vancouver Island Construction Association has a project called the https://www.vicabc.ca/advocacy/tailgate-toolkit-project/Tailgate Toolkit, and has four main components.

  1. The toolbox talk aims to create awareness around the toxic drug supply, reduce the stigma, provide awareness within our industry that help is available.
  2. We also provide supervisor training which provides industry leaders with knowledge, skills, and confidence to reduce stigma, provide support, and have those difficult conversation.
  3. We also provide regionally specific resources to help support local businesses in relation to referrals and listings for mental health and harm reduction support
  4. We also have an industry specific support group, which is virtual, weekly, and led by someone with lived substance use experience, and is not a 12 step program, rather a peer support approach

Closing thoughts

This not a homeless issue, or an addiction issue.  This is a community and social issue.

This is not about addiction necessarily.  This is about trauma, coping, and a toxic drug supply.

This CBC article highlights the loss of a 12 year old girl, a well known sports reporter, a young actor, and the point is this is happening to people in our workforce, people in our communities, and people in our lives.

To hear Colby speak more about how VICA is hoping to provide support for employers within their industry please join us April 27th in Nanaimo for our Wellness In The Workplace event.

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