January 31, 2018, by Jen Skerritt and Kevin Orland
Once recreational marijuana 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 pot 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 officer.
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 7 percent 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 neighbor. The tests spread to the oil patch 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 percent of Canadians aged 15 or older have tried pot in their lifetimes and 12 percent used it in the past year, according to a 2012 government survey. One-third of people 18 to 24 years old 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 advisor 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.
Rocky Mountain High
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 percent 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 Worker’s 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.”