BC Ferries president proposes drug testing

BC Ferries President David Hahn has demanded mandatory drug testing in the Canadian transportation industry following the revelation by the Transportation Safety Board of Canada (TSB) that crewmembers regularly smoked marijuana between shifts on the ferry Queen of the North, which sank on March 22, 2006.

The TSB learned about marijuana use aboard the ferry as part of its ongoing investigation into the sinking.

Queen of the North struck Gil Island on British Columbia’s north coast during a voyage from Prince Rupert to Port Hardy with 59 passengers and 42 crewmembers aboard. Two passengers remain unaccounted for and have been declared dead.

The TSB said it learned that several crew of Queen of the North regularly smoked cannabis between shifts, both onboard and off the vessel and that there is no evidence that crew on the bridge at the time of the accident were impaired.

The TSB said that BC Ferries is in the best position to determine whether similar problems exist on other vessels in its fleet and that BC Ferries should review the effectiveness of the company’s policy on alcohol and drugs.

BC Ferries has had a drug and alcohol abuse policy in place since 1997 and a zero-tolerance policy for all crew since 2005. Employees have been terminated as a direct result of drug use but mandatory and random drug testing is not in place in Canada. U.S. law permits such testing in the transportation industry and Hahn said Canada should pass similar legislation.

“The safety of the traveling public is paramount,” Hahn said.

Hahn wants all ferry operators in Canada to be given the authority to conduct mandatory drug and alcohol testing on all employees in safety-sensitive positions. Hahn said random drug and alcohol testing is the only proven method of ensuring protection of the traveling public.

Canada’s human rights legislation prohibits discrimination on the basis of a disability, including drug and alcohol addiction, making mandatory drug testing difficult to implement. Several court cases across the country have resulted in contradictory rulings on companies attempting to enforce internal drug testing policies.

Jackie Miller, president of the BC Ferry and Marine Workers’ Union, acknowledged that there was marijuana use on Queen of the North, but rather than attempting mandatory testing, Miller said an overall wellness plan for ferry staff is essential.

The union and BC Ferries are working together to develop a policy that will address not only addiction and drug use issues, but examine fatigue and live-aboard social issues as well, Miller said.

“What is a good deterrence is a well supported program about the risks of drugs and alcohol in a safety-sensitive work environment. … The employer has to acknowledge that drug and alcohol abuse in a safety-sensitive environment is likely an indicator of a disability and it needs a drug and alcohol policy backed up by a wellness program that includes counseling, medical interventions if necessary, and ongoing support.” She said there is no evidence showing that mandatory drug testing has reduced accident rates. “All it does is it makes people feel safe because they do the testing.”

By Professional Mariner Staff