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Impairment continues to be a problem in construction: Speaker

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HOUSTON — With voters in three states clearing the legal hurdle for marijuana on Election Day Tuesday, a crowded session on impairment in the construction workforce at the 38th annual International Risk Management Institute Inc. Construction Risk Conference on Wednesday gave a peek into the sign of the times for employers grappling with keep workers safe and alert.

Mark Pew, Atlanta-based senior vice president of product development and marketing for workers compensation pharmacy benefits manager The Preferred Medical, has been tracking the passage of marijuana legislation across states. As of Wednesday, 32 states and the District of Columbia have approved marijuana use for medical reasons, and 10 states and the District of Columbia have approved its use recreationally.

It’s just another way for workers to be impaired, Mr. Pew told attendees just before listing the other factors leading to impairment problems in the workforce, with alcohol, opioids and illicit drugs among the top culprits.

“There is tremendous momentum,” he said, of the introduction of marijuana — a drug that causes impairment such as reduced reactions and remains illegal under federal law — into the mix.

“Medical marijuana is never going away — there is billions of dollars at stake for the green rush,” he said.

Other sources of impairment include those that don’t stem from substances, according to Mr. Pew, who listed fatigue, the aging workforce, psychosocial issues such as depression, inattention, and comorbidities that slow mental and physical capabilities among the other culprits.

“There’s a variety of impairing things,” he said. “The question is not is there impairment —because there is impairment (in the workforce) — but can they do the job?”

Another list Mr. Pew presented was the “construction fatal four,” or the top causes of construction accidents and deaths. They include falls, struck by an object, electrocutions and caught in-betweens, according to data in Mr. Pew’s presentation.

“How many of those four can be impacted by impairment? If you are not paying attention, if you are not engaged, you could absolutely fall, you could do something that you shouldn’t be doing from a safety standpoint, you could get electrocuted,” Mr. Pew said.

Testing for impairment when it comes to substances is a challenge, according to Mr. Pew, who told stories of clients who say they can’t find job candidates to pass drug tests and companies in legal marijuana states lamenting that testing would cause them to fire their entire workforce.

The answer is complicated for employers, as some in safety-sensitive fields such as transportation are required by the federal government to test for substances upon hiring, at random and post-incident, he said. But other companies have a choice to test or not to test, he said. Adding to the confusion, drug-free workplace policy laws vary state-to-state and are subject to interpretation, he said.

That marijuana stays in a person’s system for up to 40 days further complicates drug testing, as workers who test positive for marijuana aren’t necessarily impaired, he said. Several firms are working to improve testing for marijuana, but there isn’t a way to test for marijuana impairment the way alcohol and opioids are tested, he said, adding the demand for such a test is there.

“Law enforcement in all these states are trying to separate impairment from presence” of marijuana in the blood, he said.

The message to employers is to pay attention to this drug conundrum, he said. “You have a to have a unique, specific section in your (human resource) policies for how to deal with (marijuana) because it is so different, because it lasts in your system longer,” he said.

Workplace wellness is another way to address the impairment issue, he said, adding that employers can create a culture of physical, psychological and emotional wellness that can prevent impairment concerns. Another cultural approach is to educate employees on impairment and the benefits of not being impaired.

Policies to help workers identify and report impairment is another answer to the problem, he said. “Are your supervisors or your people working directly with people who are impaired trained to identify impairment? Do they know what to do when they see impairment?”

For Business Insurance’s full coverage of the IRMI Construction Risk Conference, click here.