Editorial: When safety trumps privacy

Last September, the TTC passed a new measure calling for drug and alcohol testing of its employees as part of a larger “fitness for duty” policy. Bob Kinnear, head of the Amalgamated Transit Union that represents TTC employees, expressed his opposition.

Kinnear maintains the proposed rule is an invasion of privacy, saying the union will “not enter into anything that is arbitrarily rammed down our throats.”

It’s not like the TTC has declared an all-out war against drugs — but a report indicating 39 incidents of alcohol and drug use among TTC employees in the past two and a half years was motivation enough for a company that transports 1.5 million commuters a day.

Under the proposal, which comes into effect in a year, drug and alcohol testing will be limited to those applying for a job at the TTC, workers involved in past violations or returning to work after treatment. Workers could also be tested for reasonable cause, such as showing obvious signs of impairment.

The measure does not allow random alcohol testing.

The issue of employee drug testing has been an ongoing battle that continues to pit safety against privacy. And while the U.S. has formal regulations in place for workplace drug and alcohol testing, Canadian companies have relied on a patchwork of regulations to justify a lawful workplace alcohol and drug testing program.  

Workplace drug and alcohol testing in Canada isn’t exactly a new trend, either. Barry Kurtzer, chief medical review officer for Ayr, Ont.-based Driver Check Inc., which provides drug and alcohol testing services for various organizations, says his company alone has over 5,000 clients across Canada. Kurtzer was one of the speakers at the recent CSSE Professional Development Conference.

Many safety professionals feel that having a well-planned drug and alcohol testing system forms part of a well-rounded OHS program, because impaired workers not only put themselves at risk of injury, but their co-workers as well.

I understand the union’s role in protecting the interest of the workers — but protecting their interest also means preventing situations that put their lives at risk. Therefore unions should at least try to consider and understand the objective of a drug testing program, rather than slam such policy outright as an assault on privacy.

Creating a notion among employees that “the company is out to get them” is just letting ignorance reign over understanding. On the other hand, companies must do everything they can to effectively communicate the objectives of such a program to the employees.

I recently attended a discussion on change management and one thing I took away from that one-hour session is that people’s resistance to change is, almost always, because they don’t understand why the change is needed.  
Instituting a drug or alcohol testing program does not necessarily trump employee privacy, in my opinion. It’s how such program is enforced that makes a big difference. Experts recommend that if you’re company does not have a testing program but is contemplating on going down that road, make sure you bring in legal experts to help craft the policy. It’s always good to be on the right side of the law.

Beyond your legal obligation is your responsibility to your workforce to provide a safe work environment. Enforced properly, drug and alcohol testing is just one means to achieve that objective. If you’re looking for employee buy-in, make sure workers understand that.