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Miners Union Fights Drug-Testing Policy

VANCOUVER, B.C. (CN) - A coal miners union wants Teck Coal to put the brakes on a random drug-testing policy before wrapping up arbitration proceedings.

The union claims that the new policy is unjustified, as insurance rates at open-pit mines are "lower than that for a lawn bowling facility."

Two locals of the United Steel, Paper and Forestry, Rubber, Manufacturing, Energy, Allied Industrial and Service Workers International Union claim in B.C. Supreme Court that Teck Coal wants to start randomly drug and alcohol testing miners at its open-pit Elkview and Fording River coal mines known by Dec. 3.

The union filed a grievance, citing privacy concerns. It claims that until now, the company tested workers only before hiring them, for "reasonable cause," or after an accident.

Under the new policy, employees would be subject to random blood tests and breathalyzer tests, including workers who are not in "safety sensitive positions." After agreeing to arbitration, the parties met last weekend for a preliminary hearing.

"Existing arbitral authority, including prior awards between these parties, have stated that random testing is an unreasonable invasion of privacy, and that damages constitute an inadequate remedy for breaches [of] personal privacy," the petition states.

The union's attorney gave "a brief opening statement" at the weekend hearing, according to the petition.

Teck's attorney gave his own statement "which consisted of 193 paragraphs and 31 pages and included extensive reference to case law, academic and other studies and broadly based statistical analyses" which the union's lawyer objected to, claiming that it was an "argument" rather than an opening statement.

The arbitrator sided with Teck's lawyer and refused to restrict the statement.

Teck's attorney claimed that injury and fatality statistics justified the policy.

The union disagrees, saying the statistics cited were not restricted to open-pit mines or mines in general.

"[S]tatistics do not record a high level of fatalities in mining, and in fact set a low insurance rate for open-pit mining based on the cost of all injuries and diseases arising from the group," the petition states. "This rate is lower than that for a lawn bowling facility."

The union claims the company cooked up the policy by relying on a study from Washington State, titled "Do Drug-free Workplace Programs Prevent Occupational Injuries?"

"The study concluded that companies with low injury rates are unlikely to benefit from drug-free workplace programs in terms of injury risk reduction regardless of the effectiveness of these programs," the petition states. "Similarly, if the prevalence of substance abuse among employees is low, a company is unlikely to benefit from a drug free workplace program."

The union is represented by John Hodgins of the Victory Square Law Office in Vancouver.

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