How Working with a Drug Recognition Expert Changed My Life

New technology to recognize impairment in the workplace could transform it into a safer environment

Kristi Hines RN, BSCN, COHN
Hines Health Services

In Canada, companies may be doing all the right things to ensure a safe workplace — for example, by conducting pre-employment drug testing and fit-for-duty training. Yet, despite their best efforts, incidents are still occurring and indicate the impact of impairment on workplace health and safety.

Recently, I saw an individual who was undergoing a pre-employment drug and alcohol test. The nurse — who had never received drug recognition training — said the person was acting strangely, but they could not otherwise articulate what was wrong with them. The person’s face was flushed, their pupils were dilated, and they couldn’t sit still. As a registered nurse and occupational health services professional with specialized knowledge gained from working with an outstanding drug recognition expert, I recognized what was going on. Even before taking the person’s vital signs, I immediately knew that this individual was on a stimulant just by observing them. The results of the workplace drug test confirmed my suspicion: it showed they had been taking cocaine.

Signs of impairment

It’s very important for all employees to be able to recognize the basic behavioural characteristics of impairment in the workplace. These include:

  • Personality changes and erratic behaviours;
  • Increased interpersonal conflicts (e.g. not getting along with coworkers);
  • Overreaction to criticism (e.g. can’t regulate emotions);
  • Not working safely;
  • Decreased productivity or deterioration of work quality;
  • Consistently late for work or increased absenteeism;
  • Appearance of impairment at work (e.g. odour of alcohol or drugs, glassy or red eyes, unsteady gait, slurring, poor coordination); and
  • Failing an alcohol and drug test.

Causes of impairment can also include medical conditions, fatigue, some prescription and over the counter medications, along with unresolved conflict (work-related or personal).

With the passing of Bill C-45, the Cannabis Act, to legalize recreational use of cannabis, the safety landscape has changed for many employers. Current industry standards for safety-sensitive work environments follow the Canadian Model for Providing a Safe Workplace. When it comes to cannabis, one of the problems is that the current testing methods such as urine drug test parameters widely in use do not indicate real-time impairment. Under these testing methods, an employee can test positive for cannabis use but not be impaired (unlike testing blood alcohol levels to determine alcohol impairment), as cannabis metabolites can remain in a person’s system for an extended period of time. In fact, a single use can be detected three to 10 days later, and in a heavy, chronic user, it can be detected up to 30 – 60 days later or even longer. Results of current employee drug testing methods can currently only determine if THC is present, but a urine test cannot determine whether it is THC, the principal psychoactive metabolite in cannabis, or whether it is a non-psychoactive metabolite. The more recent trend of using oral fluid swabs for reasonable cause, random, and post-incident drug testing can indicate recent use, but again, cannot determine real-time impairment.

Kristi Hines and RCMP officers

A New Way of Looking at Impairment Testing

What else can companies do?

In the past few years, I have become very interested in understanding how the RCMP determines real-time impairment and how the Crown prosecutes such cases. As an occupational health and safety professional, entrepreneur and community leader, I wondered how the industry could adapt some of what the police have been doing to ensure a safer workplace.

Fitness for Duty

Here are some tips for implementing and following through on fitness for duty policies.

  • Ensure employees understand the changes associated with the Cannabis Act, and that employees see cannabis impairment as dangerous;
  • Have a fitness for duty policy that addresses workplace impairment;
  • Ensure the impairment policy in Canada is effectively implemented and provide training;
  • Train employees to identify impairment and provide them with the right tools to report concerns; and
  • Focus on the impairment and the associated hazard of the employee not being fit for duty. Do not be distracted by the source of the impairment or attempt to diagnose a medical issue.
How does the RCMP test for impairment?

A standard field sobriety test (SFST) consists of three psychophysical tests:

  1. Horizontal gaze nystagmus test, which evaluates eye movement;
  2. Walk and turn test; and
  3. One leg stand test.

If someone performs poorly on the SFST, the police will make an arrest and then a drug recognition expert will typically collect a urine sample and conduct a full assessment.

How can employers be even more proactive in preventing workplace incidents?

This is a question that the services provided by Hines Health Services addresses. We deliver fit for duty, impairment recognition and reasonable cause training for companies across Alberta. After working with a drug recognition expert and delivering more than 50 presentations on cannabis in the workplace, I developed the idea of streamlining current methods, such as clinical and psychomotor indicators, into a technology platform called the Workplace Impairment Assessment Tool (WAIT). The platform recognizes performance deficits in employees before beginning work and helps reduce risk by quickly assessing if an employee is fit for duty. It is especially helpful in identifying performance deficits that may have been overlooked in standard pre-employment occupational health testing.

Developed on a secure platform acting as a centralized hub for data collection, verification and application, WAIT will make it easy for employers in a variety of industries with safety sensitive work environments — including construction, manufacturing, oil and gas, agriculture, transportation and healthcare — to conduct sample collection, testing and reporting with streamlined protocols. The system uses the collection and application of user vitals, such as heart rate and eye movement, to help ensure employees are fit for duty. Tracking and analyzing biometrics in this way can help employers look for performance deficits, including fatigue. It’s a tool that could even help find possible illness, encouraging people to get themselves checked out to address any issues.

Hines Health Services

Hines Health Services sees WAIT as an important tool in promoting healthy workplaces by helping prevent workplace accidents, injuries and illness. Many workers say they feel better knowing that the people around them are fit for work. In its ability to create a healthier, safer work environment, WAIT is an innovative way for organizations to support their employees. At the same time, WAIT’s focus on incident prevention could potentially save companies thousands of dollars by preventing injuries, illness and lost work time.

At the end of the day, everyone wants to get home safe. We believe that WAIT is a proactive technology that will fill a gap that currently exists in workplace testing methods and can help companies and employees prevent injuries, illness and lost work time by creating a healthier, safer work environment.

THC Detection by Standard Workplace Testing

The detection periods provided below indicate how long threshold THCA (non-psychoactive) levels can be detected through urine testing.

THC use Detection period*
Single THC use Up to 3 days[1]
Chronic or heavy THC use 30-60 days[2]
Secondhand THC smoke exposure Unlikely to test positive.

*There is no correlation between level of detection and impairment.

Last year, Hines Health Services was one of 33 women-led companies in Alberta that received funding through the $30-million Women Entrepreneurship Fund, part of the Government of Canada’s Women Entrepreneurship Strategy (WES). Through WES, Hines Health Services received $100,000 in funding to develop WAIT. The tool is now in the proof-of-concept stage, and Hines Health Services will soon be seeking strategic partners to trial our technology.

“Our government believes that women’s economic empowerment is not just the right thing to do – it is the smart thing to do,” said the Honourable Mary Ng, Minister of Small Business, Export Promotion and International Trade. “That’s why we launched the Women Entrepreneurship Strategy, which aims to help double the number of women-owned businesses in Canada by 2025 by providing funding to impressive innovative businesses, and increasing their access to financing, networks and advice. It’s a smart investment with high economic return that ensures women-owned success stories like Hines Health Services can develop new technologies and maintain Canada’s place as a leader in innovation.”

For more information contact:

1 Franjo Grotenhermen, “Pharmacokinetics and Pharmacodynamics of Cannabinoids,” Clinical Pharmacokinet 42, issue 4 (April 2003): 327-360,; Franjo Grotenhermen, “Pharmacology of cannabinoids,” Neuro endocrinology letters 25, no. 1-2 (2004): 14-23.

2 Ibid.

Kristi Hines

Kristi Hines RN, BSCN, COHN

Founder and Director, Hines Health Services

Formerly an occupational health nurse at Syncrude Canada, Kristi is the founder and director of Hines Health Services (HHS), helping clients access medical testing with ease for the past eight years. The Alberta Chambers of Commerce named Kristi the 2019 Women Entrepreneur Award of Distinction at the Alberta Business Awards for outstanding achievement in business and being a positive role model in the community.

In 2018, the Mayor and Council of the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo appointed Kristi to the Wood Buffalo Economic Development Corporation's inaugural board of directors. Kristi currently serves as president of the Alberta Occupational Health Nursing Association and first vice-president of the Fort McMurray Chamber of Commerce.

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