With legal pot on the horizon, workplace concerns abound

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Wethersfield — Construction and manufacturing employees with job titles such as risk manager, safety consultant and plant operator gathered at the state Department of Labor on Tuesday to learn more about the law and best practices around workplace handling of marijuana and opioid use.

Leading the discussion was David Jaffe, vice president of legal advocacy for the National Association of Home Builders.

He cited a 2017 study showing that construction workers are among the most susceptible to opioid abuse, second only to food service employees.

Due to the physical wear and tear that comes with the job and the ready availability of narcotics, construction workers can find themselves struggling with opioid addiction, which Jaffe noted results in further injury, shoddy craftsmanship and a loss of profitability.

The event was part of the Breakfast Roundtable Discussion Group that the labor department's Occupational Safety and Health Division holds monthly. Past topics have included preventing exposures to tick-borne diseases, reducing falls off ladders, and assessing silica risk.

Tuesday's discussion was topical, as sales of recreational marijuana began in Massachusetts in November, and both Gov. Ned Lamont and state Democrats have signaled a desire to make legalization a legislative priority this session.

In Connecticut, one of 33 states with a comprehensive medical marijuana program, some of the conditions approved for treatment under An Act Concerning the Palliative Use of Marijuana are cancer, HIV, Parkinson's disease, cerebral palsy and post-traumatic stress disorder.

State law prohibits employers from refusing to hire a person or discharging an employee solely on the basis of qualifying for medical marijuana use, but it does not require anyone to do anything that would result in the loss of a federal contract. Marijuana is illegal at the federal level.

According to the Quest Diagnostics Drug Testing Index, more and more people are testing positive for marijuana at work, especially in states that have legalized recreational use since 2016.

The bottom line on marijuana is that employers can adopt a zero-tolerance policy, Jaffe indicated, noting that "most courts decided that the decriminalization of marijuana doesn't shield employees from adverse employment actions."

He cited the 2017 Massachusetts case Barbuto v. Advantage Sales and Marketing, in which a woman who legally used marijuana for Crohn's disease had her job offer rescinded after failing a drug test.

She brought a discrimination case, and the Massachusetts Supreme Court said the employer should have tried to accommodate her before making the decision to fire her. Still, an employer can show that an accommodation cannot be made based on the type of position.

In response to an audience question, Jaffe said an employer could put one position under zero tolerance — a forklift driver, for example — but not another.

In his annual briefing in Rhode Island on Monday, Electric Boat CEO Jeff Geiger expressed concern that recreational marijuana legalization in the state could inhibit the company's ability to find good job candidates, the Providence Journal reported.

Compared to alcohol, one problem with marijuana is that there is "not a reliable test to determine if the user is impaired, or how long that user remains impaired," Jaffe noted.

When it comes to opioid use in Connecticut, one of the top 10 states for opioid-related overdose deaths, the state Department of Public Health recommends that companies shift from stigmatization to an emphasis on support and care, Jaffe said.

Employers are encouraged to take a proactive role that includes a written policy, employee education, supervisor training, an employee assistance program and drug testing.

Jaffe said that each construction worker with an untreated substance abuse disorder costs his or her employer $6,800 in health care expenses, absenteeism and turnover costs. He said that because of labor shortages, it's not realistic anymore to just terminate employees.

"We tend to think these are more societal issues as opposed to things that are affecting us in our day-to-day work," Jaffe said of marijuana and opioid use, when the reality is it affects the bottom line.

His other advice is for employers to be upfront with employees about what their policies are and what they're doing.

e.moser@theday.com

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