Reasonable Cause Needed for Drug Tests on Unionized Workers

Ontario’s top court has ruled that companies cannot, without reasonable cause, require random drug tests from their unionized workers who perform safety-sensitive jobs.

Labour lawyers say the unanimous May 22 judgment by Ontario Court of Appeal Justices Eleanore Cronk, Michael Moldaver and Kathryn Feldman will influence arbitrators and courts across Canada on the contentious issue of random drug and alcohol testing in the workplace — a subject that has yet to be addressed by the Supreme Court of Canada.

The appeal court ruled that the random drug testing policy launched in 2003 by the appellant Imperial Oil Ltd. was not a reasonable exercise of the management rights and workplace safety provisions contained in the company’s 1996 collective agreement with its petroleum refinery workers in Nanticoke, Ont.

Writing for the court, Justice Cronk affirmed that the company’s policy of conducting randomized, mandatory saliva mouth-swab testing of employees in safety-sensitive positions was null and void because it did not comport with the company’s contractual obligation to treat its workers with “respect and dignity.”

As found by the arbitration board’s majority, Imperial’s policy of random drug testing without reasonable cause was an “unwarranted intrusion” on employees’ privacy and “an unjustifiable affront to their dignity,” the appeal court agreed.

The judgment marks the first time a provincial court of appeal has pronounced on workplace saliva testing, a newer form of drug testing technology, observed Douglas Wray, counsel for the respondent Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union of Canada, Local 900.

Imperial rolled out the saliva testing in 2003 to replace the drug testing policy the company jettisoned in 2001 after the Court of Appeal ruled in Entrop v. Imperial Oil — a case that involved a challenge to urine drug testing by non-unionized workers under Ontario’s Human Rights Code — that urinalysis doesn’t promote the legitimate goal of a drug-free, safe workplace because urinalysis identifies past drug use, rather than on-the-job impairment: (2000), 50 O.R. (3d) 18.

Wray told The Lawyers Weekly the appeal court’s latest verdict on workplace drug testing means that unionized employers in Ontario’s many safety-conscious industries — such as construction, manufacturing, mineral extraction or transportation — will have to negotiate explicit authority into their collective agreements if they want to conduct random mandatory testing for drugs or alcohol.

“The law for employees who aren’t covered by a collective agreement may very well be different… [and]it may very well be limited to the Human Rights Code protections… [which]may very well be narrower,” observed Wray of Toronto’s CaleyWray.

Wray said Imperial Oil is also important for the court’s approach to judicial review. He suggested the lesson is that when judges assess whether an arbitration board’s decision is reasonable, they must consider the award as a whole and not take isolated comments out of the broader context.
Imperial Oil’s counsel, John B. Laskin of Toronto’s Torys, referred questions to his client. Company spokesperson Pius Rolheiser said only that Imperial is evaluating its options, which include seeking leave to appeal to the Supreme Court.

Labour law lawyers suggested the Supreme Court’s views would be helpful given the growing push from employers in safety conscious industries for the testing of impairment in the workplace (which can include testing for fatigue — a much greater contributor to industrial accidents than alcohol or drug abuse).

“The SCC has yet to weigh in on any of the debates regarding drug and alcohol testing in Canadian workplaces,” noted Leanne Chahley of Edmonton’s Blair Chahley, who represents unions and workers.

Chahley said an appeal court split on the subject is emerging. She pointed to the divergent views of the top courts of Ontario and Alberta, with the former commenting favourably in Imperial Oil on Entrop, while the latter recently declined to follow Entrop: see Chiasson v. Kellogg Brown, 2007 ABCA 426 (leave to appeal refused by the Supreme Court).

Remarked Chahley, “the Imperial Oil [majority]arbitration decision is an extremely good analysis of all of the last 20 years of arbitral jurisprudence across Canada, and the Court of Appeal seems to have completely supported the… decisions and conclusions that the arbitration board drew in terms of its analysis of that law, so there should be no doubt that this case will guide arbitrators across Canada.”

Vancouver lawyer David Aaron recently represented the Bargaining Council of B.C. Building Trades Unions, a group of 16 construction unions statutorily mandated to bargain at one table with the Construction Labour Relations Association (B.C.’s unionized construction contractors) during the negotiation of a groundbreaking, industry-wide substance abuse testing and treatment policy. The policy focuses on the parties’ common interest in eradicating workplace insobriety, Aaron explained.

“The [Entrop and Imperial Oil] decisions from the Ontario Court of Appeal are consistent with the prevailing consensus in British Columbia’s unionized construction industry that the employer has no business holding workers accountable for their off-duty conduct, where such conduct does not impact on job performance,” Aaron observed. “We are moving from a technology-based approach to a principled approach. Urinalysis once took us into an investigation of the worker’s metabolic history, akin to chemical McCarthyism. Those days are fading fast as collective bargaining partners identify a principled approach involving the investigation and elimination of on-the-job impairment using emerging oral fluid testing technologies.”

Gabriel Somjen of Vancouver’s Borden Ladner Gervais, who wrote a paper on impairment testing, said the Court of Appeal has made clear that “especially where there is a collective agreement with any provision that refers to [employees’] privacy or human rights — or even if the agreement is silent — that employers still need to be cautious about drug testing when it is not suspicion-based” or when the testing isn’t part of an investigation into an industrial accident.

“If the employee is acting strange, or is a known alcoholic or drug addict and is on a program that requires testing, that is generally justifiable,” Somjen explained.

He predicts that testing for on-the-job impairment (whether due to fatigue, illness or drugs or alcohol) will (and should) for the most part, supplant drug and alcohol testing of workers in safety-sensitive positions. (For example, a forklift operator might be required to drive around rubber pylons before his shift. Or a worker’s ability to track moving objects with his eyes might be assessed by a machine that measures minute changes in the iris.)

“Impairment testing tells immediately whether an employee is impaired,” Somjen noted. Such testing can still be legally attacked, but it is minimally invasive and avoids the delays involved in awaiting lab results, he observed.

The Court of Appeal upheld last year’s unanimous Ontario Divisional Court decision that affirmed a 2006 board of arbitration majority decision upholding, in part, the union’s grievance.
The appeal court approved the arbitration board’s 72-page majority decision, which summarizes and analyzes the Canadian jurisprudence on alcohol and drug testing.

The arbitration board majority noted that Imperial had not provided a single substantiated example of one of its refinery employees being drug-impaired at work. Nor did the company supply significant evidence of workers’ drug use off the job, or drug use in the local community.

The appeal court swept away Imperial’s four-pronged attack on the decisions below. The company argued, among other things, that the board’s majority amended, or failed to apply, the collective agreement by essentially imposing the so-called Canadian arbitral model. The “Canadian model” takes a “reasonable cause” approach to drug alcohol and drug policies, based on balancing workplace safety and worker privacy. This contrasts with the U.S. model of random, no-cause testing.

“It was in the context of examining the established Canadian arbitral jurisprudence concerning workplace alcohol and drug testing and in attempting to summarize the nature of that jurisprudence that the majority employed the term ‘Canadian model,” observed Justice Cronk. “There is nothing objectionable in this approach.” She concluded “the majority’s reasons reveal that its rejection of Imperial’s random drug testing measures, absent reasonable cause, was based on the language of the parties’ own bargain as embodied in the collective agreement, and the evidence adduced before the Board regarding the requisite balancing of interests inherent to the examination of a random drug testing policy in the workplace.”
Reasons: Imperial Oil Limited v. Communications, Energy & Paperworkers Union of Canada, Local 900, [2009] O.J. No. 2037.

– Article from The Lawyers Weekly.



  1. Anonymous on

    On most US jobs they can’t random drug test.

  2. Adimus on

    Seems like the Canadian courts are a hell of a lot more reasonable and rationale then our own federal gov. The courts have struck down drug testing like this unless there is a reasonable cause and have struck down health canada’s medical marijuana policies as unconstitional (calling for less restrictive policies). Meanwhile our gov continues this ridiculous “war on drugs” which does more harm then good and continues to take away our liberties that the courts are rightly trying to protect. In addition whenever the courts find the MMAR policies unconstitional our gov just appeals endlessly in an attempt to forever delay the implications of the rulings. That is not the way a gov should be running the country. fail.

    Canadian courts: +1

    Sorry I went a little off topic there but this story got me thinking about some other issues and kinda ran with it.