Countdown to Washington's New Hazardous Drugs Rule

In 2014, Washington health care employers will be required to comply with the Department of Labor and Industries’ (“L&I’s”) new Hazardous Drugs Rule.   While today that may seem like the distant future, savvy employers will take time in 2013 to implement measures in compliance with the new rule before the deadline to do so creeps up.

What is the Hazardous Drugs Rule?

The Hazardous Drugs Rule is designed to protect employees of health care facilities in Washington from occupational exposure to hazardous drugs. For purposes of the Rule, the term “health care facilities” includes not only hospitals and clinics, but also pharmacies, nursing homes, home health care agencies, veterinary practices, and some research laboratories. The Rule’s protections extend beyond medical providers, pharmacists, and the like to encompass all employees who may be exposed to hazardous drugs. For example, a janitorial employee’s duties may include disposal of discarded medications or similar exposure to hazardous drugs.

Hazardous drugs include any drug identified by the National Institute for Occupational Safety (“NIOSH”) in its list of antineoplastic and other hazardous drugs in health care settings, which can be found at: In addition, hazardous drugs can include any other drug that can damage DNA or cause cancer, birth defects, fertility problems, or organ toxicity at low doses. Common examples of drugs considered to be hazardous under the Rule are chemotherapy drugs, birth control pills, and certain anti-depressants.

What is Required Under the Rule?

The Rule requires affected employers to establish – with input from employees – a written hazardous drugs control program by January 1, 2014. The written program must contain three main elements: (1) an inventory of all hazardous drugs in the workplace; (2) a hazard assessment for those identified drugs; and (3) hazardous drugs policies and procedures. The policies and procedures are expected to cover issues such as use of personal protective equipment, safe handling practices, engineering controls, cleaning, waste handling, spill control, and employee training. The employee training must be implemented by no later than July 1, 2014. 

In addition, employers are required to install ventilated cabinets for handling and preparation of hazardous drugs where appropriate. This requirement does not take effect until January 1, 2015.

Is Medical Surveillance Required?

As of now, medical surveillance of impacted employees is not required by the Hazardous Drugs Rule. There is a good chance, however, that a medical surveillance requirement will be added to the Rule.

L&I initially included medical surveillance in its proposed rule. While L&I removed that requirement from the final Hazardous Drugs Rule, it indicated its intent to revisit the issue once NIOSH updated its medical surveillance guidelines. On November 19, 2012, NIOSH issued its recommendation for medical surveillance of workers exposed to hazardous drugs.   Specifically, NIOSH recommends that baseline clinical evaluations be provided to exposed employees, followed by periodic health questionnaires and follow-up evaluations for workers who experience health changes or who have acute exposure to hazardous drugs. L&I is currently evaluating whether to add similar requirements to its Hazardous Drugs Rule. If it does so, Washington will become the first state to require a medical surveillance program associated with exposure to hazardous drugs in the health care setting.

Washington State Marijuana Legalization Law Need Not Affect Employer Drug Testing Policies

There are many sound reasons why employers have zero tolerance policies and engage in drug testing of applicants and/or employees, including customer requirements, government contracting requirements (e.g.,the federal Drug Free Workplace Act), federal or state laws (including DOT requirements for transportation workers), workplace safety, productivity, health and absenteeism, and liability. 

Some Washington state employers may be wondering whether any workplace implications have been created by the election day passage of voter Initiative 502, which made Washington the first state, with Colorado, to reject federal drug-control policy and legalize recreational marijuana use.  The simple answer is it does not change a Washington employer’s rights. 

We previously blogged a similar issue when discussing a 2011 Washington Supreme Court decision holding that Washington’s Medical Use of Marijuana Act does not protect medical marijuana users from adverse hiring or disciplinary decisions based on an employer’s drug test policy. Also previously covered in World of Employment, the Oregon Supreme Court ruled that because federal criminal law preempts Oregon’s medical marijuana law, employers in Oregon do not have to accommodate employees' use of medical marijuana.

Similar concepts apply to the new Washington State marijuana legalization law.  Marijuana still remains illegal for all purposes under the federal Controlled Substances Act.  Employers simply do not have to condone illegal drug use, possession or influence at their workplace.

In light of state marijuana legalization efforts, to best protect themselves, employers should review their policies to make sure that illegal drug use under both state and federal law is prohibited, and that their policies prohibit any detectable amount of illegal drugs as opposed to an “under the influence” standard. Employers should also ensure that all levels of their human resources personnel know how to handle medical marijuana issues as they arise.

This issue has been getting a lot of attention in the state and national media since the election.  For example, see this story in the Puget Sound Business Journal, and another article I wrote at the Law360 website (note that you need a subscription for Law 360).

When Does Alcohol or a Controlled Substance Preclude Workers' Compensation Benefits?

Like most states, Utah’s Worker’s Compensation statute prohibits an employee from recovering disability compensation when “the major contributing cause of the employee’s injury” is the employee’s unauthorized use of alcohol or a controlled substance. See Utah Code Ann. § 34A-2-302(3)(b). If any amount of a controlled substance or its metabolites is found in an injured employee’s system at the time of the injury, the Worker’s Compensation statute presumes that drug use was the major contributing cause of the injury. 

An employee can rebut this presumption by:

  • challenging the accuracy of the drug test;
  • demonstrating that he or she did not actually use a controlled substance;
  • providing expert medical opinion suggesting that the level of controlled substance in the employee’s system does not support a finding that drug use was the major contributing cause of the injury; or
  • otherwise demonstrating that drug use was not the major contributing cause of the injury.


A Utah appellate court recently weighed in on this issue when it reversed the Utah Labor Commission’s denial of disability compensation to James Barron in Barron v. Labor Commission.

Mr. Barron was severely injured while at work when he stepped backward off the edge of temporary metal decking at a construction site and fell fourteen feet to a concrete floor below. A urine sample taken at the hospital on the day of the accident tested positive for cocaine metabolites. Mr. Barron admitted to sharing a quarter of a gram of cocaine with a friend two days before the accident but presented evidence tending to demonstrate he was not impaired at the time of the accident, including testimony from co-workers and medical personnel who observed Mr. Baron’s conduct on the day of the accident.

Applying the statutory presumption, the Commission ignored Mr. Barron’s evidence of non-impairment and found that drug use was the major contributing cause of his injury. Specifically, the Commission determined that Mr. Baron must demonstrate that “some other force” apart from his own actions caused his injury to overcome the presumption. Following case law from a number of other states with similar statutory schemes, the Utah Court of Appeals reversed the decision of the Commission and, for the first time, clarified that employees are not required to show that their injury was the result of an outside force to overcome the statutory presumption. Rather, evidence of non-impairment at the time of the accident may be used to rebut the presumption and to demonstrate that drug use was not the major contributing cause of injury. 

So, when does the use of alcohol or a controlled substance preclude workers' compensation benefits?  The answer: almost always, but not when employees can demonstrate that they are not impaired, despite the presence of controlled substances within their systems.