Should Alberta oil workers be tested on the job for marijuana use?

Readers survey results, comments illustrate complexity of workplace marijuana testing issue

Roughnecks in the California or Texas oil patch fully expect to be occasionally called into the boss’ office and asked to pee in a cup. Both states allow random drug testing of employees. Canada does not. But with marijuana legalization around the corner, a University of Alberta psychiatrist say the latest research suggests that even casual use can lead to impairment when performing safety-sensitive tasks.

Charl Els, University of Alberta.

In a paper published late last year in the Canadian Journal of Addiction, Charl Els argues,  “Single or recurrent marijuana consumption is not recommended for persons who perform safety sensitive tasks” because it “has been demonstrated to have an adverse impact on a range of cognitive functions, as well as be associated with performance deficits.”

“For the most part, we think four to six hours after consumption is roughly sufficient for the impairment to wash out,” said Els during an interview on the university website.

“The problem is, the certainty of that is low. There is sufficient evidence to say it can last longer than 24 hours. If people consume in the evening, they can still be impaired in the morning, and Health Canada endorses that position.”

According to Els, it falls on Canadian employees to decide whether they are fit for work. People respond differently to THC and have varying levels of tolerance. The cannabinoid remains stored in the body’s fat cells long after consumption, making testing unreliable.

“Workplace drug testing does not measure impairment, but only the presence of the parent compound (THC) or its metabolites. Unlike alcohol, we don’t have a legal standard for what constitutes impairment,” Els told Geoff McMaster of the university.

“We don’t yet have a blood test or anything that’s accepted on a regulatory level to determine impairment.”

North American Energy News readers were polled for their opinion about marijuana testing on the job and were split on the topic: 53% were in favour and 47% were not. Forty-seven people answered this question. The poll is not scientific.

Readers were also asked if they would agree to workplace marijuana testing under one or more of the following conditions (see below). Forty-three people answered this question.

Anonymous comments from survey respondents illustrate the split in the polling numbers:

“I’ve [seen] pot smoking on drilling rigs. Guy I’m thinking of became much more mellow, but less aware of what was happening around him. Scared me a couple times [because] he missed a potential danger. I have no idea how long the impairment lasts. I’ve never tried it myself.”

“Tests should be confidential from third party and should only be for levels of cannibis [sic] that impairs, not very low levels from past use.”

“Of employee involved in a safety incident or near miss.”

When asked about workplace marijuana on my Facebook page, readers offered interesting insights that illustrate the complexity of the issue:

John Kennair, St. Albert, AB: “This becomes a slippery slope. When you are not at work, you are free to do whatever you like, yet some recreational drugs can last within your system for days or weeks. You can be perfectly sober, but still show a positive test.”

Declan Regan, St. Albert, AB: “With regards to the O&G industry there are enough drug/alcohol testing as is. Pre-access/employment exams, post-incident exam, suspected impairment tests. There’s next to zero evidence that random drug testing make any worksite safer. The current safe guards are there and work well…Personally, I’ve passed hundred of DandA tests, though I can understand the privacy issues with random tests and I believe the current system works very well.”

 Rick Collins, Fort McMurray, AB: “Problem, crystal meth leaves no trace in the body in hours, yet the inebriated is not fit, marijuana can be profiled up to three months! Simple answers don’t exist!”

Joan Wood: “How many of you would be in favour of drug testing if you worked under a crane or near a heavy equipment operator? Not in heavy industry, you say. Well, let’s talk about electricians.”

And no survey of readers would be complete without a little humour, courtesy of Robert Hodson of Edmonton, AB: “Accounting isn’t exactly a safety-sensitive industry, but I notice paper cuts are way down when I smoke marijuana.”

Marijuana impairment in the workplace is a complex issue, but one the Canadian and Alberta governments must tackle in order to ensure the highest level of safety in the oil and gas sector, which is more “safety-sensitive” than most thanks to the heavy equipment and facilities inherent to the industry.

As readers have pointed out, there are no easy answers. Except perhaps one: governments and regulators must act sooner rather than later.

Posted in: Markham on Energy

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