Calgary Pilot's Arrest brings Drug and Alcohol Policies Under Scrutiny

On December 31, a pilot was arrested in Calgary after he was discovered unconscious in the cockpit of an aircraft that was just minutes from its scheduled takeoff. Shockingly, the pilot’s blood alcohol content tested at three times the legal limit. Many are left wondering: how did this irresponsible pilot come so close to flying?

In the wake of the incident, many began questioning the airline’s policy on testing for alcohol impairment. Journalists demanded to know why a random alcohol testing policy was not in place to prevent such a situation. Spokespeople from the airline responded that they had been under the incorrect impression that it is not legal in Canada to enforce random alcohol testing in the workplace.

It’s a common misconception that random alcohol testing is not lawful in Canada. But the opposite is true: as the Canadian Human Rights Commission’s Policy on Alcohol and Drug Testing confirms, testing for alcohol is permissible on a random basis if the employee (a) works in a safety-sensitive position and (b) is informed that random testing is a condition of employment. It has been well established that alcohol use in the workplace, especially in safety-sensitive occupations like transportation, can be dangerous; 10-20% of people who die on the job test positive for drugs like alcohol (see Stanley, 2009). Not only are random alcohol testing policies legal, but they are also necessary in some circumstances to ensure that employees are not working under the influence of drugs or alcohol and to preserve the safety of the employees and everyone else involved.

If there is anything to be learned from this pilot’s brush with catastrophe, it’s that employers have a duty to be aware of the legislation governing drug and alcohol testing and other workplace safety concerns. It’s fortunate that nobody was injured in this debacle and that the pilot in question was arrested before he could endanger any lives, but employers in safety-sensitive industries must take a proactive approach to preventing similar situations in the future.

Further reading:

Canadian Human Rights Commission’s Policy on Alcohol and Drug Testing
Global News: Sunwing Unclear on Alcohol/Drug Testing Laws in Wake of Impaired Pilot’s Arrest
Stanley, T. L. (2009). Workplace substance abuse: A grave problem. _Supervision, 70_(6). 18-21

Photo credit: Sean MacEntee via / CC BY