Impairment is the National Safety Council’s final topic for National Safety Month.

Most people associate impairment with drug use or drinking. Most of us are pretty confident that we can identify what drug use or drinking on the job looks like: unfocused and/or bloodshot eyes, lack of motor coordination, slurred speech, inability to focus, inappropriate outbursts, erratic behavior, etc. We recognize these behaviors as signs of impairment because they fall outside the normal range of behavior we expect from an individual and because they hinder the individual’s ability to function. But, as the NSC’s poster points out, no level of impairment is safe in the workplace.

To wit: I was once approached by a distraught student a few minutes before crew call. She blurted out that she had gone to dinner with her family before the show, had a glass of wine with her dinner, and felt “off.” She was in tears because she felt she was letting the production down. This student was a stellar crew member and she was not exhibiting the obvious signs of drunkenness, but I wasn’t going to risk having her on the rail that night. For the safety of everyone concerned, we agreed that she would sit this one out.

There are other variables that can cause impairment at work, though. I snagged this from the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety:

“Impairment can be the result of various situations, including many that are temporary or short term. Issues that may distract a person from focusing on their tasks include those that are related to family or relationship problems, fatigue (mental or physical), traumatic shock, or medical conditions or treatments. Examples include:

  • experiencing the effects of substance use, including alcohol or other drugs (legal or illegal)
  • treating illness or using medication(s) with side effects (such as radiotherapy causing tiredness, or antibiotics causing nausea)
  • having fatigue
  • being tired due to long work periods, or working more than one job
  • experiencing the disruption to body circadian rhythm caused by shiftwork
  • having a crisis in the person’s family
  • assisting a child or a family member or having a young infant
  • preparing for an external activity such as an exam or wedding
  • experiencing shock or insecurity after a workplace incident, fire, or robbery
  • having unresolved conflict with the employer, or among employees
  • experiencing sexual harassment or bullying
  • being exposed to extreme cold(results in lower mental alertness, less dexterity in hands, etc.) or heat (results in increased irritability, loss of concentration, loss of ability to do skilled tasks or heavy work, etc.)
Adapted from: “Temporary Impairment”, Department of Labour, New Zealand (2003)

Sometimes a little bit of additional support is all a colleague needs to refocus and recover. Sometimes it’s time off or rehab. The point I’m trying to drive home is that we need to keep an eye on each other with the ultimate goal of keeping each other safe.