The legal battle over random drug testing in its northeastern Alberta oilsands facilities has ended for Suncor Energy, with a ruling in favour of the company.
Since 2012, when Suncor began randomly testing its safety-sensitive employees for drug and alcohol workplace impairment, the energy giant has been in dispute with Unifor, the union representative for 3,400 of Suncor’s 10,000 employees. Unifor claimed that randomly testing workers for drugs and alcohol infringed upon their privacy, and though the union won an arbitration ruling in 2014, it was ultimately dismissed in 2016 by Alberta Court of Queen’s Justice Blair Nixon. Subsequently, Unifor’s appeals of Nixon’s rulings have been unanimously dismissed by the Alberta Court of Appeal based on evidence that supports that Nixon “selected the appropriate standard of review and applied it properly.”
Employees at Suncor’s Fort McMurray worksite work twelve hour shifts and are responsible for operating complicated industrial equipment, including 400 ton heavy haul trucks and cable and hydraulic shovels that measure up to nearly 70 feet tall. At the time of the grievance, Suncor employed 10,000 employees and had recorded evidence of more than 2,200 workplace incidents involving drugs or alcohol. While it was not specified which of these employees were members of Unifor, Unifor members work alongside non-Unifor members at Suncor, which poses a significant safety concern considering the long hours and the heavy, intricate nature of the work.
Part of the Court of Appeal judges’ dismissal was due to the union’s focus on demonstrating whether or not substance abuse was a problem with its union members rather than whether or not substance abuse was a systemic Suncor issue. As the judges wrote, “By unreasonably narrowing the evidence that it considered when deciding this issue, the tribunal majority effectively asked the wrong question, and therefore applied the wrong legal test.”
Unifor has called the Court of Appeal decision a gross violation of workers’ rights. As Unifor national president Jerry Dias stated, “This ruling supports an invasive and degrading policy that violates the fundamental rights of workers,” and claims that while safety is and should be the first priority at Suncor, drug testing does not impact the frequency of workplace accidents or improve workplace safety.
Suncor spokeswoman Nicole Fisher is “very pleased” with the Court of Appeal decision, and says “We strongly believe that this program will contribute to a safer workplace and ultimately save lives.”
Unifor is currently exploring the option of appealing to the Supreme Court of Canada.