No random drug testing at N.L. oil projects

Sources say Supreme Court ruling not an issue for local operators

Ashley Fitzpatrick afitzpatrick@thetelegram.com
Published on June 22, 2013
Hebron project lead Geoff Parker gestures towards the Bull Arm construction site last week. Parker said this week the project is not doing random drug or alcohol testing on the construction site. If an employee is suspected of being under the influence, testing might be arranged, he told The Telegram.
— File photo by Rhonda Hayward/The Telegram

For the most part, workers at offshore oil installations and those busy building the Hebron gravity based structure at the Bull Arm fabrication site are not being subjected to random drug and alcohol testing.

The Telegram asked about the issue in response to a recent Supreme Court of Canada ruling. The ruling was in relation to a dispute between Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Local 30 and Irving Pulp and Paper Ltd. and spoke specifically to previous decisions in the case from arbitrators and the lower courts.

In its 6-2 decision, the court ultimately said Irving Pulp and Paper Ltd. could not randomly test 10 per cent of its workers at a New Brunswick paper mill over the course of each year, to see if they are drunk on the job.

The issue is being argued as one of safety versus privacy.

"The dangerousness of a workplace is clearly relevant, but this does not shut down the inquiry, it begins the proportionality exercise," the June 14 ruling reads.

Over the course of the case, Irving noted there were eight alcohol-related incidents at the mill over a 15-year period, but the Supreme Court found that was not enough to bring in universal, random testing.

"In this case, the expected safety gains to the employer were found by the board to range from uncertain to minimal, while the impact on employee privacy was severe," the ruling states.

The decision comes at a time when Suncor Energy has proposed random drug tests for workers in western Canada.

That case is now in arbitration with the strongest union of Suncor workers, the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Local 707.

When asked about the issue at the Noia oil and gas conference this week in St. John's, Suncor spokesman John Downton said the company is not randomly testing workers at the Terra Nova offshore oil project off Newfoundland and Labrador.

He said he was not aware of any random drug testing for provincial oil projects.

And following a tour of the Bull Arm Fabrication Site on Monday, to update construction of the Hebron gravity base structure, Hebron project lead Geoff Parker said he had not yet had time to look at the ruling in detail. Parker said he understood the ruling was about random drug and alcohol testing.

"So we're not doing random testing here at the moment," he said. "What we are doing is before anybody starts work here on the site, they're subject to drug and alcohol testing before they're employed and that's not affected by the court ruling as far as I know. And then during the ongoing work, if there's a reason to suspect that somebody might be under the influence of drugs and alcohol then we might do testing there."

Specifically, he said, someone involved in endangering other workers, in a safety incident, would be subject to testing. "And my understanding is that won't change as a result of any of these court rulings," he said.

Paul Barnes,a spokesman for the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP), said he was vaguely aware of the court case.

"Our industry doesn't do random drug tests. We do pre-employment drug tests, associated with pre-employment medical and - for certain positions that are safety-critical in the offshore - medicals need to be updated on a frequent basis," he said.

The difference between what has been proposed and the regular checks workers are currently being subjected to is simple: they are not random.

Even though random testing is not part of the equation at this point, prohibitions against alcohol and drug use are being supported in other ways. For example, the Bull Arm Fabrication Site is a dry site - no alcohol allowed on location. "So you're not allowed to take your vehicle on site with a bottle of wine in it, for example," Parker explained.

As well, signs with warnings against alcohol and drug use are posted around the site, including inside the 400-bed, on-site living area.

Meanwhile, the popular industry publication Alberta Oil has reported that discussion of the ruling within the legal community suggests the recent Supreme Court ruling does not permanently close the door on random drug and alcohol testing, since the ruling was, in many ways, case and site-specific.

afitzpatrick@thetelegram.com