Employee drug use may be seen as disability


WORKERS WHO use drugs could be seen as having a disability and employers must be careful to "do all that is reasonable to accommodate" them, an expert on employment law has warned.

Colleen Cleary of Landwell Solicitors was speaking at a conference on drug use in the workplace hosted by Merchants Quay Ireland, the largest voluntary drug treatment centre in the State.

She said employers had a duty to protect the health and safety of all their employees and so drug use by a worker had to be addressed.

However, under the terms of the Employment Equality Act, she said, an employee could not be discriminated against if they had a disability. "Under section 16 of the Act, in relation to a person with a disability, it says an employer shall do all that is reasonable to accommodate that person," she said.

While the issue of whether dependency on an illegal drug was a disability had not been tested before the Employment Appeals Tribunal, it could be, particularly in light of the fact that alcoholism was recognised as a workplace disability, she said.

"So an employer would be obliged to explore ways of accommodating a person with addiction to get them counselling and enable them to keep doing their job."

Merchants Quay Ireland director Tony Geoghegan said the conference was being held as drug use was widespread throughout the population and it was inevitable that workers were using drugs, albeit without it affecting their work in most cases.

"But where drug use is affecting a person's work, it is important that any drugs policy in an organisation supports the employee as well as the employer."

He said this should be the case where drug or alcohol use was not impinging on the work or the image of the organisation.

"We do know employers feel the effects if a worker has problematic drug use, in the form of reduced productivity or absenteeism, but a good drugs policy would be to support a worker who is having problems, not leave them in fear of losing their job if they admit there is a problem."

He said if a worker had drug or alcohol issues, the employer could link them in with treatment centres such as Merchants Quay.

"We have had some employers send employees to us, yes," he said.

Noel O'Connor, co-ordinator of the learning and working section at Merchants Quay, said an employer could assess whether an employee was using drugs problematically if they displayed a cluster of "symptoms" including a deterioration in their appearance and grooming, a worsening in their sickness and absence record and reduced productivity.

Accidents at work or disciplinary problems were also signs to look out for.

Mr O'Connor also said not all drug use was necessarily problematic and drug users who ended up addicts tended to travel through a process, from experimentation, to recreational use, to problematic use and finally dependency.

However, a number of employers attending commented that while recreational use might not be a problem for the user it would be a problem for them as an employer, particularly if it put the image of the company at risk.