So what are employers allowed to do in the name of workplace health and safety? What is out of bounds? Here's an overview of how the law has evolved, and where employers and employees stand following the most recent pronouncements of the courts and arbitrators.
Entrop v. Imperial Oil
The debate about the competing interests of employers (maintaining a safe workplace) and employees (protecting privacy and dignity) really got started with the decision of the Ontario Court of Appeal in Entrop v. Imperial Oil ("Entrop"). In that case, the employee had disclosed a past substance abuse problem, in line with the employer's alcohol and drug policy, and was transferred out of a safety-sensitive position as a result. In order to be reinstated to his former job, the employee was required to complete a company-approved two-year rehabilitation program followed by five years of abstinence and to sign an undertaking to abide by specified post-reinstatement controls (such as unannounced testing). The policy also provided for random testing for all employees in safety-sensitive roles, providing for termination for a failed test. The employee complained to the Ontario Human Rights Commission, and his complaint was upheld by a Board of Inquiry.
On appeal from the judicial review decision, the Court of Appeal found that alcohol and drug dependency were forms of "disability" protected by the Human Rights Code. The Court went on to find that testing was rationally connected to the legitimate goal of preventing potentially "catastrophic" incidents at an oil refinery, which is an inherently safety-sensitive workplace. However, drug testing (at the time) did not establish "present impairment", and therefore could not establish that an employee's condition, following a positive test, posed an actual danger. While alcohol testing could establish impairment, it could not be justified unless the sanction imposed by the employer was tailored to the individual's circumstances and was supportive of accommodating his or her disability. The Court of Appeal agreed with the Board of Inquiry that the provisions on disclosure, reassignment and reinstatement also violated the Human Rights Code, in that the employer did not establish that these rules were reasonably necessary to ensure that employees were not impaired in the workplace. The mandatory disclosure of a past substance abuse problem, no matter how long ago, was unreasonable, particularly once an employee was no more at risk of relapse than a member of the general population. Requiring that an employee be reassigned out of a safety-sensitive position once they had disclosed a past substance abuse problem was also not reasonable because it failed to offer any accommodation to the employee who had disclosed a disability. The obligations that the policy imposed post-reinstatement were overly broad and unnecessarily rigorous. The Court, however, found that reasonable cause and post-incident testing were defensible, provided they were part of a broader assessment of impairment by alcohol and drugs in the workplace.
Since the Entrop decision, there has been a vast amount of litigation on the subject of whether an employer can legitimately test employees for impairment by alcohol or drugs. Here's a summary of where the law currently stands in Ontario:
Following the decision of the Supreme Court of Canada in Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union of Canada, Local 30 v. Irving Pulp & Paper, Ltd. ("Irving"), it is now accepted that a unionized employer cannot justify the random testing of employees in safety-sensitive positions, unless the employer can establish that there is an actual workplace problem with drug and alcohol impairment which threatens health and safety. On the facts, the employer could only point to eight (8) safety incidents over a 15-year period that were caused or attributable to drug or alcohol impairment, so the employer was unable to establish that the balance of interests favoured intruding upon employee's autonomy by imposing random, unannounced testing.
In a recent decision, the Ontario Superior Court of Justice upheld the decision of Arbitrator George Surdykowski in Mechanical ContractorsAssn. Sarnia v. United Assn. of Journeymen and Apprentices of the Plumbing & Pipefitting Industry, in which the Arbitrator determined that pre-access testing was more akin to random testing, and therefore unreasonable unless it can be established that:
... such testing will probably have a meaningful ameliorating effect on an actual substance abuse problem at that work site, and so long as such pre-access testing is part of a broader alcohol and drug policy which includes an individualized approach to dealing with employee alcohol and drug issues which is consistent with the Ontario Human Rights Code.
For Cause, Post-Incident and Testing Following Return from Treatment
Following Entrop, there has been little argument about an employer's right to perform drug and alcohol testing where there is reasonable cause to suspect impairment (e.g., where an employee is behaving in a manner that raises a suspicion of substance abuse), or following an incident or near-miss in the workplace. In order to qualify, the employee must be in a safety-sensitive position, and there must be objective reasons to consider drug or alcohol impairment as a potential cause or contributor to the employee's behaviour or performance. Likewise, when an employee in a safety-sensitive job has disclosed an addiction and has sought treatment, an employer has a right to require testing for a reasonable period of time following the employee's return to work to monitor compliance with the employee's rehabilitation program. Of course, the response to a positive test in any of these circumstances must be tailored to the employee's personal circumstances and provide the potential for accommodation of a disability, but it is otherwise permissible.
The East-West Divide
Ontario employer may have heard of more lenient decisions emanating from the courts of Alberta (most notably the 2007 decision of the Alberta Court of Appeal in Alberta (Human Rights and Citizenship Commission) v. Kellogg Brown & Root (Canada) Company, leave to appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada denied). However, don't be confused. As recognized by Arbitrator Surdykowski in the Mechanical Contractors' Association Sarnia decision (above), there is truly a divide in the approach as between Alberta and all points east. In Ontario, the reasons of the Alberta courts have not found favour, and the approach continues to be much more restrictive. Unless an employer can point to safety-sensitive positions (or a workplace that is inherently dangerous) and evidence of a workplace 'problem' related to alcohol or drug impairment (i.e., erratic behaviour, an accident or near miss, an employee returning from drug or alcohol rehabilitation, or a proven substance abuse problem in the workplace generally), testing under a policy will be a tough sell. Most adjudicators in Ontario will find in these situations that an employee's interest in personal dignity, autonomy and privacy will trump the employer's concerns for workplace health and safety, no matter how sincerely held those beliefs may be.
Do you have questions about how to formulate or apply a drug and alcohol policy in your workplace? Need advice on what to do in the event of a positive drug or alcohol test? Contact Lance Ceaser for expert guidance.