Alberta launching drug, alcohol testing initiative

2-year pilot project in oilsands, construction sectors includes random testing of employees

As of Oct. 15, Suncor Energy will be randomly testing a subset of employees for drugs and alcohol. Each month, the company will test four per cent of workers who hold safety-sensitive positions in the oilsands in Wood Buffalo, Alta.

“Drug and alcohol use is an issue that affects the safety of our people and our workplace and it poses an unacceptable risk on our work site,” said Sneh Seetal, Calgary-based spokesperson for Suncor, which has 13,000 employees globally, including 5,500 based at Wood Buffalo.

“Random testing is an important part of our overall approach to safety and it’s reasonably necessary just to make sure all our workers get home safely to their families at the end of every shift.”

Suncor’s initiative is part of Alberta’s Drug and Alcohol Risk Reduction Pilot Project (DARRPP) among the energy and construction industries. A group of nine employers, labour organizations and industry associations are participating in the two-year pilot project to evaluate and report on the effectiveness of workplace alcohol and drug programs.

The goal is to establish best practices around testing and develop guidelines for related processes such as case management, assessment and followup, said Pat Atkins, DARRPP administrator based in Calgary.

“It’s really about gathering data from the organizations to see what kind of impact these programs have had and really, right now, there hasn’t been consistent data gathered… so we really want to look at what the results of this are and where processes can be improved,” she said.

Participating organizations are required to compile data on the random testing, including the number of workers who tested positive, received an assessment and participated in a return-to-work program. They also need to provide data on employee assistance program (EAP) usage and workplace safety, such as injury and incident rates.

Drug and alcohol usage is “fairly high” among the energy and construction industries and more people are testing positive than the industry considers safe, said Atkins.

“The focus of this (pilot project) is improving safety, it’s about deterrence, about people not coming to work in an unfit condition that creates risk and it’s also about encouraging people to get help,” she said.

Many employers in the industry already have drug and alcohol testing programs in place, but other than pre-site access and new hire testing, many of the programs are reactive — occurring after an incident or after an employee appears unfit to work — rather than preventative, said Atkins.

“The bottom line is you may have already had an accident and we feel that’s too late, and maybe that incident wasn’t a fatality but maybe it could have been,” she said. “Random testing actually identifies risks and potentially prevents them before something happens.”

In the trucking industry, the implementation of random alcohol testing reduced fatal crashes by 23 per cent, said Atkins, citing a 2009 study from Columbia University in New York.

“(Like the trucking industry), there’s an inherent risk in refineries, in mines — there’s a lot of people working on these sites, there’s active construction going on — and it’s really important to have people get help and not come to work in a way that’s going to create a safety risk,” she said.

Each participating organization must identify safety-sensitive positions that will be subject to random testing. It’s up to the individual employer to determine what criteria need to be met in order for a position to be deemed safety-sensitive.

At Suncor, some of the safety-sensitive positions include heavy equipment operators, mine operators, fleet vehicle drivers and control room staff.

“A safety-sensitive position is one in which an employee has a key or direct role in an operation where any actions or decisions they took, if they were not carried out properly, it could result in serious injury and affect their health and safety or the health and safety of other employees, contractors, customers or visitors, public or the environment,” said Seetal.

Each participating organization must give all employees in safety-sensitive positions a minimum 30 days’ notice before the random testing begins.

If an individual tests positive, he will be assessed to determine if he has a dependency. If he does, it is considered a disability under Alberta human rights laws and the employer has a duty to accommodate — he will receive treatment, case management and a return-to-work plan, said Atkins.

At Suncor, if an employee tests positive, the company will pay for 100 per cent of his treatment, whether it be education, counselling, residential treatment or rehabilitation services, said Seetal.

“And if someone has been deemed to have a dependency, they would have to have a medically cleared return to work to ensure they can maintain their own safety and the safety of their co-workers,” she said.

If the worker is not dependent, then each employer will follow its own policies and practices around the issue and he may receive education treatment, a return-to-work program or discipline, or a combination of all three, said Atkins.

But the fact Alberta human rights laws state the employer has no duty to accommodate a non-dependent user is a concern, said Linda McKay-Panos, executive director of the Alberta Civil Liberties Research Centre in Calgary.

“If you’re a casual user and you took marijuana on the weekend and on Monday you had a random drug test, but you’re not addicted, then there’s no accommodation — they’re done… they could be fired,” she said. “You have to be really careful that it’s testing current impairment and not past impairment.”

There should also be a mechanism in place for retesting in the case of a false positive, she said.

Random drug testing can have negative consequences on the work environment, said McKay-Panos.

“A hefty portion of our work is based on a trust relationship between employer and employee and having random drug tests implies the employer assumes you can’t be trusted,” she said. “That could affect morale.”

Another concern is the protection of a worker’s privacy, said McKay-Panos.

“For example, what if you have a disease that you don’t want people to know about but it doesn’t have any impact on your job? Maybe you’re HIV-positive or something. So, you don’t want to be testing people who don’t need to be tested,” she said. “It is an invasion of your privacy to do this.”

In developing the program, the DARRPP team worked closely with the Alberta Human Rights Commission and the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner of Alberta, said Atkins.

“What we’re wanting to do is balance the requirement for safety with the requirement for human rights and privacy,” she said. “All of the organizations participating will have privacy policies in place and ensure they are handling alcohol and drug matters appropriately relative to privacy.”

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