Drug Testing in the Alberta Oil Sands

The oil sands in the Canadian province of Alberta are booming, attracting workers from all parts of Canada and even the United States who are drawn by the promise of startlingly high wages. It’s not at all unusual for jobs in Alberta to pay twice, three times, or even more than what they would in other parts of the country – it’s simple supply and demand – all kinds of jobs and not enough workers.

Many of the jobs require long hours and isolation. Workers frequently live in camps where the level of boredom is high and a need to blow off steam is felt once the hard week’s work is done – and sometimes even while it’s being done. In response to this, representatives of the provinces construction and energy sectors have developed a pilot project – DARRPP (Drug and Alcohol Risk Reduction Pilot Project), which is designed to evaluate the efficacy of drug and alcohol programs that include random testing.

How It Works

DARRPP’s mandate is to establish a code of best practices for random testing on “safety-sensitive” sites, and to develop strategies for assessment, case management and follow-up. Stakeholders are working from a shared model, and anticipate that by the end of 2014, statistics will have been gathered, and a basic policy framework developed based on the results.

Administrator Pat Atkins, who has worked as a human resources manager for 25+ years and has developed drug programs and policies, states that drug and alcohol abuse poses serious risks not only to workers, but to their families, and indeed, the entire community. He envisions the project as building on policies and programs that are already in place in order to improve safety in the oil sands.

It makes sense, and it’s worked in other sectors. As an example, in the United States, when the FTA (Federal Transit Administration) mandated drug and alcohol testing in the transportation sector in 1995, drug and alcohol abuse were endemic. Under random testing, positive results have decreased by almost half since then. Additionally, a study of alcohol as a factor in trucking accidents concluded that random testing resulted in a 23% reduction in fatalities.

How Addiction is Viewed in Canada

In Canada, the courts have ruled that alcohol and drug dependency constitute disabilities that employers have to accommodate. That might not sound like a good thing, but Atkins disagrees. He maintains that workers who have substance abuse problems can benefit from programs that are designed to help them with their addictions as opposed to punishing them, and that with proper, effective care, they can become valued employees.

The Challenges and the Benefits

In heavy industry, substance abuse can lead to huge risks on work sites, especially where heavy equipment is used and mere seconds of inattention or slow reaction time can lead to tragedy. The DARRPP protocol is designed to facilitate drug testing and treatment, in tandem with the protection of human rights and privacy. The belief is that it isn’t testing that violates human rights – it’s lack of appropriate support and treatment when a worker tests positive.

Given the phenomenal number of people employed in the Alberta oil sands, numerous drug and alcohol test technicians have opportunities to earn outstanding wages in their chosen field. Additionally, workers who have addiction issues can get the help they need. Sounds like win/win.



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