In a much anticipated decision dated May 19, 2016, the Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench overturned a 2014 arbitration ruling that struck down random drug and alcohol testing.
Suncor Energy Inc. implemented a random testing policy in their oil sands operations. The Union grieved on behalf of its members arguing that the policy was an unjustifiable violation of employee’s rights to privacy, respect, and dignity in the workplace. The Union argued that there was no demonstrated safety concern, that random testing was an ineffective way to address safety concerns, and that there were less intrusive means to address concerns with drug and alcohol use. Suncor maintained that it had established evidence of a pervasive problem with drugs and alcohol in the workplace.
The majority of the arbitration panel sided with the Union, finding that Suncor did not establish a legitimate safety risk in the workplace and the imposition of a random drug and alcohol testing policy was an unreasonable exercise of Suncor’s management rights. A dissenting opinion on the arbitration panel found that Suncor had presented overwhelming evidence of a serious problem with drug and alcohol use in the workplace and that failure to implement measures to address this risk could result in “serious injuries, fatalities, and potential catastrophe”.
The Court overturned the arbitration panel. The Court stated that the panel effectively ignored the 2,276 drug and alcohol related security incidents that occurred in the previous 9 years by focusing only on a small number of bargaining unit members who were involved in these incidents. The Court noted the following: “By focusing only on the bargaining unit, the Majority [of the panel] expressly excluded consideration of relevant evidence” and “the Majority ignored evidence pertaining to some two-thirds of the individuals working in the Oil Sands Operation.” The Court further noted that the Union failed to provide evidence of any effective alternative to testing.
The Court ordered that the arbitration decision be overturned and that the matter be returned to another arbitration panel for re-hearing. This decision is a positive development for employers in safety sensitive workplaces where substance abuse remains a concern. However, this may not be the end of the matter – the Union has stated they will appeal the Court’s ruling and they continue to maintain that random testing violates the basic rights of Union members.