Drug and alcohol testing: A divided nation? (Legal view)

Western Canadian courts more sympathetic to testing by employers with safety concerns
By Duncan Marsden
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 10/05/2009

Employers, especially those with employees who deal with dangerous equipment, often think the right to a safe workplace should be the primary consideration when determining the appropriateness of drug and alcohol testing. The types of testing available for use on employees or job applicants include:

• pre-employment testing

• random testing

• “for cause” testing, where specific employees who are reasonably suspected of drug or alcohol impairment are tested

• post-incident testing, where an employer has a reasonable suspicion drug or alcohol use contributed to the incident.

The law, however, imposes human rights and privacy obligations on employers, which often are in direct conflict with health and safety concerns.

A drug or alcohol addiction is likely to constitute a disability for the purposes of federal and provincial human rights legislation. As such, an employee or applicant who is an addict is entitled to protection from discrimination and an employer must accommodate such an individual, up to the point of undue hardship. People with perceived disabilities may also be protected from discrimination.

A review of some important decisions in this area demonstrates the difficulties employers may face if deciding to implement drug and alcohol testing. And where an employer is located can affect what might be allowed.

Ontario decisions

Entrop v. Imperial Oil Ltd.: Imperial Oil’s policy required employees to disclose past drug or alcohol problems. The policy also provided for random substance abuse testing, by way of urine and breathalyzer analysis. The employee disclosed an alcohol problem he had several years previously. He was immediately reassigned to another less desirable position and, therefore, brought a claim that eventually went to the Ontario Court of Appeal.

Drug and alcohol abusers have a disability for the purposes of human rights legislation, found the court, and, although social drinkers and casual drug users are not abusers — and therefore are not disabled — Imperial Oil’s policy perceived them to be disabled because a drug or alcohol test treated everyone who tested positive as if they were abusers.

According to the Ontario Human Rights Code, pre-employment and random drug testing by an employer was discriminatory on grounds of disability, but random alcohol testing as well as post-incident and “for cause” testing were permissible for employees in safety-sensitive positions, provided a company met its duty to accommodate those who tested positive. Such accommodation should include consideration of sanctions less severe than dismissal, with appropriate support and rehabilitation.

The court differentiated between random drug testing (not permissible) and random alcohol testing (potentially permissible) on the basis alcohol testing shows a present impairment while drug testing only shows an individual has taken drugs in the few weeks preceding the test but not whether an individual was impaired — and therefore a safety risk — when the test was conducted.

Imperial Oil Ltd. v. C.E.P., Local 900: In response to the Entrop decision, Imperial Oil introduced random saliva testing, which purported to indicate present drug impairment, although the test results were not available for a number of days. Again a claim was raised, which went to the Ontario Court of Appeal. In a decision released on May 22, 2009, the court again held pre-employment and random drug testing were not permissible.

The court refused to accept Imperial Oil’s new policy, primarily because the delay in results belied the contention the testing was geared towards immediate safety issues. It found post-incident drug testing and testing with cause were permissible for employees in safety-sensitive positions, provided the company met its duty to accommodate those who tested positive. The court did not deal with alcohol testing in its judgment.

Western Canada

The approach in Western Canada has focused more on safety concerns.

Chiasson v. Kellogg Brown & Root (Canada) Co.: John Chiasson was hired by Kellogg Brown, subject to a pre-employment screening test. He was tested and started work but when marijuana-positive results were obtained nine days later, his employment was terminated.

The Alberta Court of Appeal upheld the right of an employer to immediately terminate an employee who failed a pre-employment drug screening test. It ruled Chiasson was only a recreational drug user, not an addict and, therefore, was not disabled and did not require accommodation. The employer, Kellogg, did not perceive him to be an addict and its drug-testing policy was connected to the important issue of workplace safety, found the court. Therefore, there was no discrimination. The Supreme Court of Canada denied leave to appeal on May 29, 2008.

The Alberta Court of Appeal observed it was the employer’s concern about the increased likelihood a casual user of marijuana would be impaired on the job, and not a belief about addiction or the behaviour of addicts, that led to the termination of Chiasson’s employment. The court explicitly refused to follow the Ontario Court of Appeal, to the extent that it conflicted with this ruling.

Vancouver Shipyards Co. v. U.A., Local 170: An arbitration board in British Columbia has also gone against the trend in Ontario, ruling a policy requiring disclosure of substance-abuse problems within the previous six years was lawful, in light of evidence past addicts are more likely to re-abuse drugs and alcohol within six years of recovery. This policy was safety-focused, found the arbitration board.

Looking ahead

Although the courts in Alberta and B.C. have taken a more employer-friendly approach, the concern of the Ontario courts was the means chosen to address the issue of safety — testing — did not achieve the objective of showing present risk. Breathalyzer tests provide immediate evidence of present impairment and thus demonstrate an employee’s capability to perform job duties safely at the time of the test. A positive drug test, however, does not.

Drugs and alcohol may not be the only risks to safety. Many employers fail to consider sleep deprivation, which can be just as relevant. This has led to the development of technologies that test for impairment, by the use of hand-eye co-ordination tests, for example. Such tests focus on the real issue of a person’s ability to carry out the job in a safe manner rather than focusing on drugs or alcohol as causes of impairment.

These technologies carry other issues, such as an inability to provide a reason for failing the test. For example, a new parent who has stayed up with her sick baby may be impaired or an employee may fail because of the stress of the test itself. However, with proper administration and individual accommodation, there may be viable alternatives for employers seeking to keep workplaces safe.

For more information see:

Entrop v. Imperial Oil Ltd., 2000 CarswellOnt 2525 (Ont. C.A.).

Imperial Oil Ltd. v. C.E.P., Local 900, 2009 CarswellOnt 2763 (Ont. C.A.).

Chiasson v. Kellogg Brown & Root (Canada) Co., 2007 CarswellAlta 1833 (Alta. C.A.).

Vancouver Shipyards Co. v. U.A., Local 170, 2006 CarswellBC 3405 (B.C. Arb. Bd.).

Duncan Marsden is an associate in the Calgary office of Borden Ladner Gervais, practicing labour and employment law. He can be reached at (403) 232-9722 or dmarsden@blgcanada.com.

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