Case Report – Alberta Court upholds site access drug testing decision

Last November 26th, the Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench dismissed a judicial review application which sought to quash an arbitrator’s endorsement of a site-access testing policy brought in by an Alberta construction site owner.

Petro Canada implemented a site access drug and alcohol testing rule at an Oil Sands construction site in 2004. It required Bantrel (the employer) to apply the policy to its employees who were already on site. The drug test to be conducted was not a “current impairment test,” but it gave employees two months’ notice so they could refrain from drug use and pass a test. Most or all of the employer’s available work was on the Petro Canada site, so employees who refused or failed the test were laid off with or without accommodation as appropriate.

In March 2007, an arbitration board chaired by Arbitrator Phyllis Smith held the employer had implemented a reasonable work rule. She reasoned that an employer that imposes a work rule based on a third-party requirement must still demonstrate that it is reasonable to enforce the third-party requirement. Despite this, she held that testing was reasonable in all the circumstances. Even though the employer was not testing for current impairment she held that site access testing implemented on two months’ notice was a reasonable risk management tactic:

The design of the policy insofar as it applied to current employees was such that it would only detect, through non-negative test results, the most significant risks to the workplace, namely persons who were either unwilling to or unable to give up drug use for any time at all.

Risk management was justifiable, she held, based on the nature of the work (undoubtedly safety sensitive) and based on general evidence of work-related drug use in the Alberta construction industry and general evidence supporting efficacy of testing over supervisory monitoring. Ms. Smith expressly held that the employer need not prove that it has a drug and alcohol problem to justify risk management testing (as opposed to current impairment testing).

Ms. Smith also held the employer had not violated the Alberta Human Rights, Citizenship and Multiculturalism Act. Although her analysis is not particularly probing, she appears to have held that site access testing is a BFOR based on the same general evidence supporting its reasonableness. She did note that employees were accommodated, with treatment where appropriate.

The Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench upheld both of these parts of Ms. Smith’s award as reasonable.

While notable, this case demonstrates a markedly different balancing of interests than displayed in recent Ontario arbitration awards, a point noted by Ms. Smith and again by the Court. It is also partly explained by Petro Canada’s broader, risk management purpose – a purpose given weight based on evidence of a broad challenge relating to drug use in the Alberta construction industry and a uniform adoption of site access testing by construction site owners. In Ontario, and perhaps elsewhere, site access drug testing should still be approached with substantial caution.

United Association of Journeymen and Apprentices of the Plumbing and Pipefitting Industry of the United States and Canada, Local 488 v. Bantrel Constructors Co., 2007 ABQB 721.


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