Adding mar­i­juana to the em­ployee-screen­ing mix will in­crease costs and pool of work­ers could get thin­ner as le­gal­iza­tion nears

Edmonton Journal - - CITY - JEN SKER­RITT and KEVIN OR­LAND

Once recre­ational cannabis be­comes le­gal in Canada, Gar­net Amund­son says it will get a lot harder to find the work­ers he needs at Es­sen­tial En­ergy Ser­vices Ltd. And he isn’t the only em­ployer who’s wor­ried.

Es­sen­tial En­ergy pro­vides ser­vices to oil and nat­u­ral-gas drillers across Canada, and its em­ploy­ees han­dle volatile chem­i­cals, op­er­ate heavy equip­ment and work with high-pres­sure pipes and valves.

In short, it can be a dan­ger­ous job if safety pro­ce­dures aren’t fol­lowed to the let­ter. That’s why the Cal­gary-based com­pany only hires peo­ple who pass a drug test.

The prob­lem — one that many com­pa­nies are wrestling with — is that the ac­tive in­gre­di­ents in mar­i­juana can re­main in a per­son’s blood­stream for weeks, long after the high is gone. At the mo­ment, there’s no way to tell whether a can­di­date in­dulged in cannabis at home over the week­end or smoked a joint in the car on the way to the job in­ter­view. And if le­gal weed boosts ca­sual pot us­age, there’s a risk that fewer ap­pli­cants will be clean enough to hire.

It’s a lit­tle like “some­body said to us, ‘If you’ve had a drink in the last two months, you’re con­sid­ered not fit for duty,’ ” said Amund­son, Es­sen­tial En­ergy ’s chief ex­ec­u­tive.

The prospect of more failed drug tests is a big con­cern for an en­ergy in­dus­try that is ex­pand­ing and needs more work­ers.

Com­pa­nies al­ready are hav­ing a hard time hir­ing enough qual­i­fied peo­ple to per­form jobs that are phys­i­cally de­mand­ing and re­quire long stretches in re­mote lo­ca­tions. That mat­ters be­cause en­ergy ac­counts for seven per cent of Canada’s econ­omy and pro­duces fuel ex­ports to the U.S. that reached $54 bil­lion in 2016.

Prime Min­is­ter Justin Trudeau wants recre­ational mar­i­juana to be le­gal by the sum­mer months, mak­ing good on his 2015 cam­paign pledge. He has ar­gued that pro­hi­bi­tions on pot waste law en­force­ment re­sources and that the gov­ern­ment could do more to pre­vent use of the drug by chil­dren by shut­ting down the il­licit mar­ket.

Pro­vin­cial and city of­fi­cials have said they need more time to de­velop lo­cal reg­u­la­tions and poli­cies.

Le­gal mar­i­juana would cre­ate a new dilemma for em­ploy­ers that long ago adopted drug and al­co­hol test­ing for high-risk jobs.

The truck­ing in­dus­try be­gan screen­ing driv­ers in the mid-1990s to com­ply with a re­quest by the U.S., Canada’s big­gest trad­ing part­ner, which buys ev­ery­thing from cars to chem­i­cals to agri­cul­tural prod­ucts from its north­ern neigh­bour. The tests spread to the oil­patch as U.S. com­pa­nies be­gan build­ing more en­ergy projects in places like Al­berta.

Most en­ergy com­pa­nies con­duct urine or saliva tests for drugs and al­co­hol, said Tim Sal­ter, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Drug and Al­co­hol Test­ing As­so­ci­a­tion of Canada.

They screen job can­di­dates and some­times test em­ploy­ees be­fore they can ac­cess cer­tain sites, or when some­one is sus­pected of be­ing im­paired or was in­volved in an ac­ci­dent, he said.

Adding mar­i­juana to the mix will boost costs for com­pa­nies, es­pe­cially if recre­ational use be­comes more com­mon.

There’s also a le­gal risk. Sun­cor En­ergy Inc., the largest Cana­dian oil pro­ducer, tried to im­ple­ment ran­dom drug test­ing at some job sites, but a judge blocked the move after ob­jec­tions from the union that rep­re­sents some work­ers.

Mar­i­juana ad­vo­cates say the in­dus­try’s con­cerns are overblown.

More than 43 per cent of Cana­di­ans aged 15 or older have tried pot in their life­times and 12 per cent used it in the past year, ac­cord­ing to a 2012 gov­ern­ment sur­vey.

One-third of peo­ple 18 to 24 had used it in the past year.

Em­ploy­ers will con­tinue to have the right to en­sure em­ploy­ees aren’t in­tox­i­cated on the job, said Alex Shiff, an ad­viser at the Cannabis Trade Al­liance of Canada, which rep­re­sents li­censed grow­ers and re­tail­ers.

“I don’t think we’re go­ing to be see­ing any sys­temic changes in terms of how so­ci­ety func­tions,” Shiff said. “Those work­places that al­ready do not tol­er­ate peo­ple be­ing im­paired on the job will con­tinue to do so.”


The Cana­dian gov­ern­ment is plan­ning more ed­u­ca­tion about mar­i­juana, and reg­u­lat­ing its us­age will help en­sure safer road­ways and work­places, said Bill Blair, the for­mer po­lice chief who’s Trudeau’s point man on le­gal­iza­tion.

Canada isn’t con­sid­er­ing al­low­ing ran­dom drug test­ing like some U.S. ju­ris­dic­tions do, he said.

In­dus­try groups are brac­ing for le­gal­iza­tion. The Petroleum Ser­vices As­so­ci­a­tion of Canada is de­vel­op­ing guide­lines for com­pa­nies seek­ing to adapt their drug and al­co­hol poli­cies after the change, CEO Mark Salkeld said.

The Cana­dian Truck­ing Al­liance is ad­vo­cat­ing manda­tory drug and al­co­hol test­ing, which might limit le­gal chal­lenges for com­pa­nies that want to main­tain zero-tol­er­ance poli­cies, said Stephen Laskowski, the or­ga­ni­za­tion’s pres­i­dent.

Com­pa­nies else­where have adapted. In Colorado, where le­gal sales of recre­ational mar­i­juana be­gan in 2014, the state made sure com­pa­nies could ter­mi­nate or refuse to hire work­ers who fail drug tests for safety-sen­si­tive po­si­tions, ac­cord­ing to Car­rie Jor­dan, pres­i­dent of the DJ Basin Safety Coun­cil, an oil and gas in­dus­try group that shares safety in­for­ma­tion and pro­motes train­ing.

The coun­cil ad­vises com­pa­nies to be clear about zero-tol­er­ance poli­cies to make sure em­ploy­ees un­der­stand the con­se­quences.

“The in­dus­try is very re­silient,” Jor­dan said. “They’re go­ing to fig­ure out a way to make it work.”

Since le­gal­iza­tion, there has been an in­crease in work site ac­ci­dents, in­clud­ing slips, falls and slow re­ac­tions to emer­gency sit­u­a­tions, she said, with­out pro­vid­ing data to back up her as­ser­tion.

Worker com­pen­sa­tion claims sug­gest Colorado’s pot law has yet to show any im­pact on safety.

Claims in 2015 slipped 0.7 per cent from a year ear­lier to 34,078, and dropped again in 2016 to 33,827, the data show. The fig­ures are pre­lim­i­nary be­cause claims can be re­ported for as long as two years after the in­jury.

Colorado’s shift­ing em­ploy­ment land­scape makes it hard to iso­late the ef­fect of le­gal­iza­tion, ac­cord­ing to David Gal­li­van, a reg­u­la­tory an­a­lyst for the state’s Di­vi­sion of Work­ers’ Com­pen­sa­tion.

The years in ques­tion cor­re­spond with record low un­em­ploy­ment as well as shifts in the com­po­si­tion of the work­force in more in­jury-prone sec­tors, in­clud­ing an in­crease in con­struc­tion jobs and a de­crease in nat­u­ral re­sources, he said.

At Es­sen­tial En­ergy, Amund­son says he’ll con­tinue drug test­ing of job ap­pli­cants for now and will only hire those who pass.

“I would al­ways pre­fer to hire a guy who has a clean drug test and a strong phys­i­cal body and a great work ethic,” he said.

“But I sus­pect now our pool of those in­di­vid­u­als could get thin­ner.”

The in­dus­try is very re­silient. They’re go­ing to fig­ure out a way to make it work.


The Petroleum Ser­vices As­so­ci­a­tion of Canada is de­vel­op­ing guide­lines for com­pa­nies seek­ing to adapt their drug and al­co­hol poli­cies after pot be­comes le­gal.


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