In Canada, random drug and alcohol testing of employees lags behind the U.S. where such testing has been the law in the transportation sector since 1995.
But last month in Alberta, Suncor Energy’s non-union employees underwent random testing.
“This is one of the tools we’ll use to provide a safe workplace,” said Suncor spokeswoman Sneh Seetal from Calgary.
“We want to make sure all workers go home safely.”
Left out of the testing are Suncor’s 3,400 Fort McMurray employees from Local 707 of the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers (CEP) Union.
In October, an Alberta Court of Appeal judge granted CEP an interim injunction against the testing and ordered that the matter go to arbitration.
But on Nov. 28, Suncor will make its case against the injunction before appeal court judges in Edmonton.
Local 707 president Roland LeFort said CEP members are glad their dues are going toward the legal fight, which could prove to be a test case for random drug and alcohol testing in Alberta’s oilpatch.
“They need to identify cause,” said LeFort, who came to Fort McMurray in 1981 from Cape Breton and has worked for Suncor since 1983.
The CEP is arguing that under Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms, employees have the right to privacy and shouldn’t be tested based on suspicion.
On Dec. 7, a similar case involving CEP Local 30 and Irving Pulp and Paper in New Brunswick is to go before the Supreme Court of Canada.
In 2009, the Ontario Court of Appeal, in a unanimous judgement, dismissed an appeal by Imperial Oil and affirmed the prevailing legal opinion that random drug testing – as opposed to testing for reasonable cause, post-incident or as part of a rehabilitation plan – will seldom be justified, even in safety-sensitive work environments.
In October 2011, the Toronto Transit Commission announced it would implement random drug and alcohol testing in the aftermath of a bus crash that killed a passenger.
The driver was charged with cannabis possession.
At Suncor, drug and alcohol testing is done at various times: pre-employment, post-incident, for cause, post-violation and post-treatment.
Sniffer dogs are also used at the worksite, said LeFort.
The push for random testing started in June when Alberta’s Drug and Alcohol Risk Reduction Pilot Project (DARRPP) was launched.
Over the summer and fall, participating companies developed testing methods, with Suncor being one of the first to implement them.
Other DARRPP participants include the Progressive Contractors Association of Canada, the Christian Labour Association of Canada, the Construction Owners Association of Alberta and the Ledcor Group of Companies.
LeFort admits there’s, “probably an issue with drugs here (Fort McMurray) but it’s not that different from downtown Vancouver.”
DARRPP administrator Pat Atkins is now living in Calgary, but worked in human resources in Fort McMurray’s oil industry for more 30 years.
“Clearly there is a problem in northern Alberta with drugs and alcohol,” he said.
Oilpatch workers are known for earning big wages.
The average Suncor union employee earns about $45 per hour, LeFort said.
They work 12-hour shifts for six days and then get six days off.
Atkin’s cited statistics from a report “Alcohol Use and the Alberta Workplace, 1992-2002.” that states that in the past year, 15 per cent of Albertans admitted they used cannabis and 11 per cent reported using alcohol while at work.
Seetal noted that since 2000, there have been seven work-related fatalities at Suncor.
“At least three of those workers were under the influence of drugs or alcohol,” she said.
Atkins stresses that DARRPP is about deterrence, providing help for workers and ensuring that employees don’t come to work under the influence of drugs and alcohol.
“It’s not about catching people,” she said.
A Cornell University study, which collected data from 71 U.S. construction companies, concluded that on average, within two years of implementing a drug testing program, injury rates were reduced by 51 per cent.
LeFort remains sceptical.
“Somebody has to show me that random testing will make a difference. Impairment is the real issue,” he said.
The president of Merit Contractors Association thinks otherwise.
“Random testing has the potential to decrease risk at the jobsite,” said Stephen Kushner.
Suncor has hired a third-party contractor that specializes in drug and alcohol testing.
Typically, breathalyzers will be used for alcohol-testing, while urine and saliva samples will be used for drug testing.
Saliva swabs and breathalyzers reveal more immediate impairment.
Urine and blood tests can detect drugs such as cannabis up to three months later.
“We will respect people’s privacy,” Seetal said. “We’ll go about this in a respectful manner.”
If a person is found to conclusively have drugs or alcohol in their system they will be offered treatment.
Suncor is committed to paying 100 per cent of treatment costs, Seetal said.
“This is a very slippery slope. If Suncor wins, it can be brought in everywhere,” LeFort said.