NBCA Says Pre-Existing Alcohol Problem Not a Prerequisite to Random Alcohol Testing

Last Thursday the New Brunswick Court of Appeal issued a rather remarkable decision in which it held that employers who manage “inherently dangerous” workplaces do not require evidence of a pre-existing alcohol problem to justify random alcohol testing.

The decision is most remarkable for its approach. Specifically, Justice Robertson held that a great need for policy guidance, especially in light of conflicting arbitral jurisprudence, justified review on the correctness standard:

Certainly, the Supreme Court has yet to accord deference to an administrative tribunal with respect to questions of law umbilically tied to human rights issues: see Jones and de Villars, Principles of Administrative Law, 5th ed. (Toronto: Carswell, 2009) at 553. Similarly, the Supreme Court has held various privacy commissioners do not have greater expertise about the meaning of certain concepts found in their respective statutes which limit or define their authority: see Jones and De Villars at 553, note 223. Accepting that no analogy is perfect, I see no reason why this Court should depart from those precedents. Indeed, if one looks to the arbitral jurisprudence, one is struck by the reliance on judicial opinions touching on the matter. The overlap reflects the general importance of the issues in the law and of the need to promote consistency and, hence, certainty, in the jurisprudence. Finally, I am struck by the fact that there comes a point where administrative decision makers are unable to reach a consensus on a particular point of law, but the parties seek a solution which promotes certainty in the law, freed from the tenets of the deference doctrine. In the present case, it is evident that the arbitral jurisprudence is not consistent when it comes to providing an answer to the central question raised on this appeal. Hence, it falls on this Court to provide a definitive answer so far as New Brunswick is concerned. This is why I am prepared to apply the review standard of correctness. But this is not to suggest that I am about to ignore the arbitral jurisprudence which has evolved over the last two decades. Let me explain.

Justice Robertson’s “let me explain” line leads to a full analysis of the cross-Canada arbitral jurisprudence in an attempt to derive a principle for the justification of random alcohol testing respectful of arbitral efforts. In the end, he says:

As matter of policy, this Court must decide whether an employer is under an obligation to demonstrate sufficient evidence of an alcohol problem in the workplace before adopting a policy requiring mandatory random alcohol testing. In my view, the balancing of interests approach which has developed in the arbitral jurisprudence and which is being applied in the context of mandatory random alcohol testing warrants approbation. Evidence of an existing alcohol problem in the workplace is unnecessary once the employer’s work environment is classified as inherently dangerous. Not only is the object and effect of such a testing policy to protect the safety interests of those workers whose performance may be impaired by alcohol, but also the safety interests of their co-workers and the greater public. Potential damage to the employer’s property and that of the public and the environment adds yet a further dimension to the problem and the justification for random testing. As is evident, the true question is whether the employer’s workplace falls within the category of inherently dangerous. It is to that issue I now turn.

On the facts, Justice Robertson held that Irving’s kraft mill met the “inherently dangerous” criterion, a finding made somewhat easy by the arbitration board’s finding that Irving’s workplace was “dangerous,” but not dangerous enough to justify random alcohol testing without evidence of a workplace substance abuse problem.

Syndicat canadien des communications, de l’énergie et du papier, section locale 30 c. Les Pâtes et Papier Irving, Limitée, 2011 NBCA 58 (CanLII).

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