Court orders stop to random drug, alcohol testing at Suncor oil sands operations

Suncor

Suncor workers safer with “testing for cause” system, says Unifor. Photo: Suncor Energy.

Unifor says supervisor “first contact” and “testing for cause” more effective, less degrading to workers

The Court of Queen’s Bench of Alberta  issued an injunction Thursday preventing Suncor, Canada’s largest integrated energy company, from reinstating random drug and alcohol testing at its oil sands operations.

Suncor

Unifor National President Jerry Dias.

“Unifor maintains that random testing is invasive and degrading, the policy that Suncor is trying to implement is a gross violation of worker’s rights,” said Unifor National President Jerry Dias said in a statement.

As Energi News reported in late Nov., Suncor Energy had planned to bring back random testing on Dec. 1, citing “an alarming number of ongoing positive tests” and numerous safety incidents.

“We recognize this is a significant change for employees and leaders,” a leaked internal memo says. “Despite our continued efforts to mitigate the risk of alcholol and drugs, the evidence of alcohol and drug use we’ve found on our sites reflected a continued safety risk we simply can’t ignore.”

Unifor applied for the injunction while it seeks leave to appeal an earlier court ruling, which allowed Suncor to return to random testing, to the Supreme Court of Canada.

More than 3,000 members of Unifor Local 707A at Suncor’s worksites in the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo are covered by the injunction. Unifor has also filed a grievance about the random testing and is awaiting a final arbitration decision, according to the union.

Suncor

Ken Smith, Unifor.

Ken Smith is the president of Local 707A. He said in an interview that the workers are not opposed to testing for cause.

He compares workplace testing to driving an automobile, an activity where safety is also paramount.

“We don’t want people on the highways being impaired, but the police just can’t randomly stop you and subject you to a blood test or a urine test,” he argues.

“They need to have a cause; they need to see some behavior or something to warrant the test. Suncor is asking our workers to be held to an even higher standard and not have their human rights respected.”

Smith argues that testing for cause shifts responsibility to the employer to provide more training for supervisors and to be more diligent on the job site, but random testing leads to a “false sense of security” without any real improvement in safety for other workers.

“The better alternative is there, which is first contact with the supervisor because they see every single employee every single shift,” he said.

“When your supervisor has a chance to assess you, it’s not a stranger. He knows who you are, how you normally appear and act, so if something’s out of the ordinary that person would have an excellent opportunity to detect that. And at that point, they have the right to send the worker for a test.”

Employers already have a variety of situations where they are allowed to test for drugs and alcohol.

Suncor“We have post-incident testing,  for instance. If you’re involved in an incident that looks suspicious at all, we find it takes very little for the company to send you for a test. We have many people being tested out there post-incident,” he said.

Workers who have a history of substance abuse are required to seek treatment and to submit to “unannounced testing,” according to Smith.

“A lot of these people are in these programs for two or three years and so they’re being tested for cause because they had an issue in the past and they’re being monitored to make sure they’re doing well in their programs,” he said.

“The reason it’s not random is that it’s specific to that one employee, but they don’t know when they’re going to be tested. They’re called in at different times.”

Unifor says random testing is “degrading” for workers, especially those who have no history of drug or alcohol abuse.

“Imagine a person with 20 or 30 years of service with the company, with a spotless record, an excellent employee, never had given the company any reason to suspect that they could be using any kind of substance,” Smith said.

“They would get plucked off the job, sent for this type of testing, made to feel like a criminal – how does that person feel when they return to the job. After you went and got a negative test result and they send you back to work, you’ve got a person that feels violated.”

Smith says the union wants the safest possible worksites, just like the employer.

“We definitely have the safety of our workers, and everybody else that enters those sites, at our deepest core. That’s the one thing that we are adamant about. We’re not looking to lessen the safety on the site. We’re definitely partners with the company and in safety programs, but just don’t think this one offers any benefits.”

Posted in: Canada

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