SAINT JOHN (Canadian OH&S News)
Mill workers in New Brunswick, fighting against their employer’s bid to introduce random alcohol testing, are now awaiting a final decision from the nation’s top court.
The Supreme Court of Canada heard the Communications, Energy and Paperworks (CEP) union’s case on Dec. 7, which
filed a grievance with their employer, Saint John-based Irving Pulp & Paper, a division of J.D. Irving Ltd. and part of the Irving family empire.
In 2006, Irving adopted a policy at the mill which included random breathalyzer tests for its employees that were in “safety-sensitive positions.” An employee was selected to be tested by a random lottery, and though his test showed a blood-alcohol level of zero, the local 30 CEP chapter filed a grievance based on the lack of justification for the test.
“The local union filed a grievance because one of our members was forced to give a random test, he has an impeccable record, he’s a religious chap that has never done any types of drugs, let alone go to work drunk,” explained Dave Coles,
national president of the CEP in Ottawa. “[He] objected to the infringement on his privacy and was insulted by it.”
Whereas the union views random alcohol testing as an affront to their workers’ privacy and dignity, Irving has maintained that the random tests would improve the safety of their workers.
According to Abby Deshman, director of the public safety program and a lawyer with the Canadian Civil Liberties Association — one of the interveners in the case — the employer must demonstrate a reasonable cause for such tests.
“Workplace safety is obviously an extremely important issue and employers need to be extremely mindful,” Deshman said from Toronto. “At the same time however, just because there is some risk that something might happen, doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re justified in imposing a privacy-invasive policy.”
Similar case being fought in Alberta with Suncor
Bosses and staff members alike will be watching the case unfold with bated breath, as it has the potential to set a precedent for random testing at workplaces all across the country. Another high-profile dispute currently being heard by the courts is the Suncor Energy case, in which the CEP union in Alberta is battling to quash random drug and alcohol testing.
Previous appeals at the provincial level between the Irving mill and the local union deemed that random testing could only go one of two ways. “These claims are incompatible. In this workplace, one will prevail; the other must yield,” the court ruling read.
For Coles, the issue is not about safety, but instead about the overlapping well-being of workers in general.
“It’s not just drugs and alcohol that make work sites dangerous. We need to have a larger dialogue on the whole issue of work site safety and drugs and alcohol. I don’t think you can isolate any one piece of this, this is a very complex problem and we need to have intellectual discussions on how to make workplaces safe.”
Mary Keith, the media spokesperson for J.D. Irving, said that the company would not comment while the matter is before the courts.
A decision date for the Supreme Court has not been set, and officials say these cases can typically take up to several months.