By James L. Curtis and Adam R. Young

Seyfarth Synopsis: The National Safety Council released a policy statement endorsing employer zero-tolerance policies for cannabis use for employees who work in safety-sensitive positions, explaining that no level of cannabis is safe.

Unlike a test for Blood Alcohol Content, testing results for Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) metabolites (the psychoactive components of cannabis) do not directly demonstrate employee impairment.  Positive tests for cannabis can reflect past usage by an employee who is not impaired.  Because the science has not yet created a test which can definitely show cannabis impairment, several legal frameworks presume impairment from positive drug test results.  Employers have raised the question of what “levels” of marijuana metabolites are “safe” for employees at work and on duty, and how best to address positive drug test results.  The National Safety Council (NSC), a respected national body of safety professionals, released a policy statement on October 21, 2019 addressing cannabis issues.

After acknowledging that the amount of THC detectable in the body does not directly correlate to a degree of impairment, the NSC advises employers that it is unsafe to be under the influence of cannabis while working in a safety sensitive position.  “Safety-sensitive” refers to positions where drug impairment can significantly jeopardize the safety of the employee, co-workers, or third parties.  The NSC explains that any level of cannabis in the system should be unacceptable, as it leads to an increased risk of injury or death to the employee and others.

In support of its contention that employers should have a zero-tolerance policy for employees in safety-sensitive positions, the NSC cites a National Institute of Drug Abuse study that found that employees who tested positive for cannabis had:

  • 85% more injuries;
  • 55% more industrial incidents; and
  • 75% higher absenteeism rate.

The NSC further cites an Insurance Institute for Highway Safety study that found a 5.2% increase in the rate of crashes post-cannabis legalization in three states as compared to before legalization.

In its policy statement, the NSC further recommends assigning employees to non-safety sensitive positions when they use marijuana for medical reasons, as a mandatory accommodation.

As a group of safety professionals, the NSC’s primary concern is employee safety.  The organization’s recommendations may conflict with applicable laws or may require additional nuance and refinement.  Employers should consult with legal counsel before implementing the NSC’s recommendations to ensure compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act, state cannabis laws, and other federal and state rules.

For more information on this or any related topic please contact the authors, your Seyfarth attorney, or any member of the Workplace Safety and Health (OSHA/MSHA), Cannabis Law Practice, or Workplace Policies and Handbooks Teams.