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Would you accept a breathalyzer in your workplace?

The Supreme Court says employers have to have a very good reason to randomly test employees to see if they’ve been drinking.
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Nevil Hunt, June 17, 2013 10:06:58 AM

Canada’s highest court has ruled that employers can’t institute random alcohol testing just because they feel like it.

Irving Pulp and Paper started testing its employees in Saint John, N.B., in 2006, saying that eight cases where staff was found to be under the influence over a 15-year period justified the random breathalyzer tests.

The Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union of Canada filed a grievance, and various courts ruled for and against over the years, culminating in the Supreme Court decision. In the interests of full disclosure, I’m a member of the same union as the Irving plant workers, although I’ve never met any of the people involved.

In a split decision, the Supreme Court justices ruled that there was no “demonstrated problem with alcohol use” in the Irving workplace. The value of Irving’s random breathalyzer testing is clear from the company’s results: not one positive test in the 22 months the employees were required to blow into the equipment.

The court didn’t rule out testing when there are reasonable grounds to believe someone has been drinking or when an employee has been involved in an accident. The court also left the door open for alcohol and drug testing for employees who have received treatment for substance abuse.

The Supreme Court struck a much-needed balance with their decision. The judgment noted that the safety gains Irving could expect from testing were “uncertain to minimal, while the impact on employee privacy was severe.”

The court did not say drug and alcohol testing is never warranted, it simply requires employers to be reasonable.

All workplaces have some degree of risk. Even in a basic office there are stairs you could fall down, a pot of scalding coffee or – watch out! – a pen that could put your eye out. If on-the-spot testing was allowed to go ahead whenever an employer felt like it, any feeling of trust between management and employees would quickly evaporate. The effect of that kind of mistrust would damage the company and the workers.

Human beings are fallible and always have been. To monitor people in very personal ways when there is no apparent problem that needs solving is demoralizing and demeaning for the workers.

When the cure is worse than the disease, it’s a natural reaction to fight back. When there’s no disease at all, you have to give your head a shake. And our Supreme Court says there was no disease at the Irving plant.

In fact, if the Irving workplace is intrinsically unsafe, the company should invest in more safeguards for its employees.

One might ask if the company managers who approved seven years of legal fighting should get tested for strange substances; how else can you explain all the money that went into lawyers’ pockets instead of plant improvements?

Readers, what do you think of mandatory drug testing in the workplace? Let us know in the comments.


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