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From Weed to Wellness, Retailers Change Occupational Health and Safety

Some retailers are taking a new look at occupational safety and health programs post-pandemic, which include expanding wellness initiatives and modifying their approach to marijuana use. Amazon is doing both—and given the behemoth’s increasing sway over the marketplace, its moves could suggest a path that other retailers will follow.

Faced with fewer job applicants, several retailers are luring applicants by modifying their company drug-testing policies by ending screening in states with legalized cannabis, which now totals sixteen.

Dave Clark
Dave Clark

Amazon made the move in June, explained in a message to US operations employees by Amazon retail executive Dave Clark. “In the past, like many employers, we’ve disqualified people from working at Amazon if they tested positive for marijuana use. However, given where state laws are moving across the US, we’ve changed course,” Clark wrote. “We will no longer include marijuana in our comprehensive drug screening program for any positions not regulated by the Department of Transportation and will instead treat it the same as alcohol use.”

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As a safety measure, the company said it will continue to do impairment checks on the job and will test for all drugs and alcohol after any incident, but it will also advocate for reforming the federal government’s stance on marijuana by supporting the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement Act. 

Amazon is not the first to ease up on weed. Three years ago, automotive retailer AutoNation ended its screening for cannabis, with spokesman Marc Cannon describing why to the Los Angeles Times: “You watch what’s going on in society. You look at recruiting, and you say, ‘We’ve got to adjust,’” he said. “A lot of great candidates were failing the test.”

Of course, many retailers have never required drug tests, marijuana or otherwise, although it is common to have exceptions for jobs in asset protection, management, or those that require operating a vehicle.

Overall, retail workers fail drug tests at a higher-than-average rate, according to data analysis by Quest Diagnostics, a drug-testing firm. Based on 14 million urine drug tests, retail trade had the highest overall positivity rate in 2018 among industries examined, the fourth straight year it topped the list. Additionally, retail trade is one of six sectors that saw year-over-year double-digit increases in positivity between 2015 and 2018, according to the firm.

Positive tests for marijuana have grown even more substantially in recent years. In May, Quest Diagnostics reported that marijuana positivity rates have surged among the general workforce, up 16.1 percent in urine testing in 2020.

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Marijuana legalization has caused positive drug tests to increase, according to Barry Sample, PhD, senior director of science and technology at Quest Diagnostics. Since 2012, in states with legal recreational use statutes, positive tests are up 118.2 percent, compared to 68 percent in states with medical carve-outs, and 58 percent in states with no medical or recreational marijuana statutes.

While eliminating employer drug tests for marijuana may attract more job applicants, Quest data suggests that retailers should maintain education and vigilance regarding on-the-job use. “Our post-accident data suggests that marijuana use may play a role in those workplace incidents prompting a drug test,” Sample said.

Amazon’s WorkingWell Program

In another Amazon announcement, in May the company said it planned to triple the number sites under its WorkingWell program, in pilot since 2019 with the goal of expanding it to 1,000 locations by the end of the year. It will spend $300 million on worker safety and aims to cut recordable injuries in half by 2025, according to the company.

The company has faced criticism in the past over its record on safety and the pressure it places on warehouse workers, but it insists that its new effort is not “just a talking point.”

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To reach its goal, Amazon plans to implement traditional safety best practices such as:

  • Redesigning workplaces and work tasks to limit exposures to repetitive motion injuries,
  • Daily “health and safety huddles” to highlight safety topics, and
  • Greater use of safety coaches on warehouse floors.

The effort will also borrow from more contemporary approaches to workplace safety that have gained momentum, to include:

  • Dedicated wellness spaces within buildings for activities like voluntary stretching,
  • Hourly workstation prompts to get employees to engage in minute-long activities designed to reduce mental and physical fatigue,
  • Videos on mindfulness practices, such as meditation, at interactive kiosks,
  • An EatWell initiative to encourage healthier eating, and
  • A WorkingWell app to provide mobile, anywhere access to program components.

“Amazon has identified some innovative technologies and approaches to address employee well-being and the implementation of training and wellness programs in their facilities,” said Jennifer McNelly, CEO at the American Society of Safety Professionals.

A New Occupational Health and Safety Paradigm?

Stress, mental health, and work-life balance garnered greater attention during the pandemic and addressing them is a growing priority of many retailers’ occupational safety and health initiatives.

Most academic studies conclude that businesses benefit from these programs, even if it means small decreases in the rate of work. Typically, results show that reducing workers’ stress ultimately improves worker productivity, reduces company health costs, and reduces turnover, which in turn leads to still greater productivity gains. Wellness and exercise programs have also proven to reduce absenteeism and musculoskeletal symptoms.

Some companies report adopting a new paradigm for improving health and safety outcomes. Instead of looking solely at specific tasks or processes that are causing injuries and making a business case for interventions, they use a productivity business case built on a more holistic view of worker safety and health, which includes a focus on less tangible problems, such as worker pain and fatigue, to raise productivity.

Data collected over the years suggest that these “little” issues cost retail organizations plenty.

  • The majority of loss productivity time (LPT) is attributable to reduced performance at work, twice as much, studies show, as work absences. In essence, nearly three-quarters of LPT is “invisible” to employers because it occurs “on the job.”
  • Perennially, the top conditions causing loss in employee productivity are headache/pain, cold/flu, fatigue/depression, digestive problems, and arthritis.
  • Studies have shown that more than half of workers experience one or more common, episodic, or chronic-episodic health conditions, like headache or fatigue.
  • Pain-related productivity loss is common among workers, surveys show. While musculoskeletal pain tends to gain the attention of safety programs because they can result in recordable injuries, productivity loss is probably greater from common conditions such as headaches and dental or menstrual pain.

Some researchers are advocating for a more comprehensive view of occupational safety and health, and advise companies to do the following:

  • Treat “every day” pain as the business issue it is. Many workers don’t receive adequate treatment for treatable “garden variety pain,” and companies that ignore it shell out millions in unnecessary workplace costs, they say.
  • Make “pain prevention” an element of the safety and health program. While employers are often not attuned to prevention, directing more resources into it will avoid pain-related costs in the long run.
  • Identify the conditions that account for the most LPT. For any single condition, 20 to 35 percent of employees typically account for 70 to 80 percent of LPT, which makes targeted health interventions a cost-effective way to improve productivity.
  • Sponsor health programs at the work site. This is perhaps the best way to drive workers to get the help they need in a timely manner, studies show.
  • Support smoking cessation assistance. Regular smokers have been shown to have productivity losses nearly twice as high as those of nonsmokers.

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