(Canadian OH&S News) — A grievance arbitration board has found that a 2012 random drug and alcohol testing policy, in its present form, is unreasonable for workers at a Suncor Energy site in northern Alberta.
The three-person arbitration board, consisting of chair Tom Hodges as well as employer and union nominees, released its ruling on March 18. Local 707A of Unifor (formerly the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union) had filed a grievance on behalf of members at Suncor’s Athabasca oilsands operations near Fort McMurray, after the company announced the unilateral implementation of the random testing policy in 2012, Unifor noted in a statement. In December of that year, the Court of Appeal of Alberta granted an injunction to block the implementation of the random policy until after the arbitration case was heard.
In the ruling, Hodges wrote that the imposition of a random alcohol policy was an unreasonable exercise of management rights. “We find that the 14 positive alcohol tests over a nine-year period in a workforce the size of this employer does not establish that there is a significant problem or legitimate safety risk,” Hodges wrote. As of July 2013, the union represented 3,383 workers, a number that had more than doubled in the past decade.
With respect to random drug testing, Hodges said that Suncor’s decision to use urine testing was confusing, considering that this type of test is easier to adulterate. “There are employees who know they are certain to fail urine tests and who are engaged in efforts to adulterate those tests,” he wrote. “In effect, the most serious of offenders are finding ways to beat the test. The 2012 policy would cause intrusions into the privacy of employees beyond what is reasonably necessary.”
Hodges summarized by noting that the 2012 policy had been proposed without any time limits for reviewing its effectiveness, was not targeted as narrowly as possible, did not use the least intrusive or more accurate testing measures available and did not contain provisions for communicating with employees about false positive results.
Roland Lefort, president of Unifor Local 707A, said that random testing is a violation of workers’ basic rights and that the union would continue to work with Suncor to ensure workplace safety through education and prevention, not invasive medical procedures.
“There is no evidence that random testing improves safety, which is why Unifor is committed to more reliable methods to keep our members safe on the job while respecting the dignity of our members,” added Jerry Dias, Unifor’s national president, in the union’s statement.
The random drug and alcohol policy is separate from Suncor’s pre-existing drug and alcohol policy, which allows for post-incident and reasonable cause testing. The appeal court ruling found that only six per cent of employees tested under this policy from the beginning of January 2009 until mid-June 2012 tested positive.
But Suncor spokesperson Sneh Seetal said that investigations into the seven workplace fatalities at the company’s oilsands operations concluded that three workers had been under the influence of either drugs or alcohol when they were killed. In the decision, Hodges pointed out that all three fatalities had involved contractor employees and not bargaining unit employees.
“We’re obligated to provide a safe work site for all our employees, contractors and visitors to the site,” Sneh said. “We’re doing what we feel is necessary to fulfill that commitment.”
The decision can be found at www.unifor.org/en/policy-grievance-707a.