In light of the Supreme Court of Canada’s (the “SCC”) decision in Stewart v. Elk Valley Coal Corp (“Stewart”), employers who employ workers in safety-sensitive workplaces may now have more assurance that policies encouraging workers to voluntarily disclose substance abuse issues will be upheld.
In Stewart, the SCC upheld the company’s decision to dismiss an employee who failed to comply with the company’s policy by not disclosing his addiction to cocaine before a drug-related incident occurred. In doing so, the SCC found that the company’s decision to terminate Mr. Stewart’s employment was not a violation of the Alberta Human Rights Act.
Mr. Stewart worked in a safety-sensitive position at Elk Valley. Elk Valley introduced an Alcohol, Illegal Drugs & Medication Policy for all employees. In accordance with the policy, if an employee had an addiction or dependency, they could disclose this to the company before a drug-related incident occurred and would be offered treatment. However, if an employee only disclosed their addiction or dependency after an incident occurred, the company would terminate their employment. The company’s motivation for implementing the policy was to ensure safety in the workplace by encouraging employees to disclose any substance abuse issues and receive treatment before any incidents compromising the safety of the workplace occurred. All employees, including Mr. Stewart, received training on the policy. Mr. Stewart also signed a form confirming that he understood the policy.
Mr. Stewart used cocaine on his days off work but did not disclose this to the company. He was involved in a workplace accident and was required to complete a drug test. Mr. Stewart tested positive for cocaine. At a follow-up meeting between the company, the union, and Mr. Stewart, Mr. Stewart disclosed that he thought he had an addiction.
The company proceeded to terminate Mr. Stewart’s employment in accordance with its policy. Despite this, the company offered to pay for 50% of the cost of a treatment program and invited Mr. Stewart to re-apply for a position with the company in six (6) months if he successfully completed the program.
Mr. Stewart’s Dismissal Upheld
The Alberta Human Rights Tribunal and the courts at all levels, including the SCC, found that there was no violation of the Human Rights Act.
In reaching this conclusion, the SCC found that Mr. Stewart’s addiction was not a factor in his dismissal. Instead, it was Mr. Stewart’s failure to follow the policy that resulted in his dismissal. Specifically, Mr. Stewart had breached the policy by using cocaine and failing to disclose his dependency before a workplace incident occurred. Moreover, the SCC found that Mr. Stewart’s addiction did not prevent him from disclosing his addiction to the company. Rather, it was Mr. Stewart’s personal choice not to disclose his addiction that resulted in his dismissal.
The SCC’s decision turned on two findings. First, the SCC found that Mr. Stewart was capable of choosing not to inform the company of his drug use and therefore it was not his addiction that led him to breach the policy. Second, the company was a safety sensitive work environment where avoiding accidents were crucial, which justified the policy. Considering these two factors, the SCC’s decision may have a narrow application going forward.