The oilpatch has long been considered a dangerous occupation where high pay lures workers into a high-risk working environment. But since 1987 – thanks to the forceful intervention of Health and Safety Minister Jim Dinning – Alberta’s upstream oil and gas industry has become the safest industry in the province.
A key element has been drug and alcohol testing. Now the federal government plans to legalize recreational marijuana use despite serious objections from multiple industry groups. That Ottawa will do this before scientific and proven standards for impairment and testing are perfected is reckless.
Alberta Labour publishes annual safety statistics by major employment group, the latest for 2015. The provincial average for disabling injuries was 2.36 per 100 person years of employment. Mining and petroleum development came in at 0.88. The provincewide statistic for lost-time accident (LTA) frequency was 1.36. The oilpatch reported 0.25. The report reads, “The mining and petroleum development sector continued to have the lowest lost-time claim rate in 2015 at 0.25. Provincial and municipal government, education and health services had the highest lost-time claim rate in 2015 at 1.98.” That is progress!
Why do employers drug test? The oil and gas workplace is indeed high risk. Workers drive to and from remote locations. They work with or around heavy machinery. Hydrocarbons are flammable and poisonous and produced under high pressures. Workers should not be there unless they are rested, alert and sober.
Pre-employment drug and alcohol testing has long been demanded by responsible companies, as has post-incident testing. However, mandatory random testing has been challenged in court. Each time the safety-conscious oilpatch has lost for human rights considerations. Now the courts treat proven impairment as an employer’s “duty to accommodate.” If a worker tests positive and is terminated, judges now rule the employee can challenge the firing by claiming to have a dependency defined as a “disability;” not ambivalence to a safe workplace.
The Liberals campaigned on legalizing pot. But nobody asked industry for its views. Late last year, nine major trade associations wrote the ministries of justice, safety, transport and employment pleading, “As the employers of hundreds of thousands of workers across Canada, we feel it is imperative that several issues and concerns are addressed prior to or at the same time as the legislation to legalize marijuana is introduced.”
After restating the hazards of being intoxicated on the job, the associations urged Ottawa to concurrently introduce acceptable and measurable marijuana impairment standards as is the case for alcohol; clear and enforceable workplace drug and alcohol enforcement regulations; and more legal balance in favour of the employer on the “duty to accommodate” issue.
On April 11, 2017, Enform, the Alberta safety organization funded by oil and gas industry trade associations, requested governments introduce an outright ban on marijuana in hazardous work environments until drug-testing technology is perfected and legal limits for intoxication are established. Pot stays in the body for weeks after consumption. But it doesn’t mean the worker is impaired.
On the pot file, our photogenic and hip PM marches onward. It is not that consuming marijuana should remain illegal. But to legalize another form of intoxication without medical, scientific and legally-enforced guidelines to maintain and ensure worker safety is irresponsible. The government has just over a year to fix this. Here’s hoping.