Employers often assert (and behave as if) workplace safety considerations trump workers’ privacy rights. This is good rhetorical terrain for employers to argue from because it frames opponents of testing regimes as being opposed to (or at least not prioritizing) safety.
When there is an absence of evidence to support the efficacy of initiatives like testing (which is often the case), employers can revert to some version of ”better safe than sorry” as a rationale to justify their position. This rationale runs contrary to the generally acceptable proposition that they who make a claim must substantiate it.
I recently read a 2018 arbitration decision about cognitive testing for Edmonton transit drivers that was quite interesting. You can find the full decision on canlii.org under this reference:
Amalgamated Transit Union, Local No. 569 v Edmonton (City), 2018 CanLII 82319 (AB GAA)
The nub of the case (and I’m paraphrasing pretty liberally) is there had been two bus-related pedestrian fatalities and the government regulator required the city to implement a transit driver evaluation policy. The city’s response was to implement mandatory (1) road testing and (2) cognitive testing.
The cognitive testing included a computerized screening tool. If workers scored above a threshold on the tool, they were then suspended with pay and required to undergo medical evaluation. (There was no evidence that the two fatalities were related to cognitive impairment of the drivers.) The medical testing and release of information violated these workers’ privacy.
The grievance basically asserts that the city had no legal or factual basis for implementing (1) the mandatory screening and, for those who fail the screening, (2) the follow-on medical assessment. The union also argued the cognitive screening test, having been developed primarily to screen for cognition decay in older drivers, was not a valid test for an otherwise healthy population.
In the end, the arbitration panel ruled based upon the union’s argument around the testing being unreasonable and declined to address the (rather troubling) issue of the test’s validity and reliability. What makes this case interesting is that, while the matter awaited adjudication, the employer proceeded with the testing under the “work now, grieve later” principle and we actually have results about the efficacy of the testing.
The firm providing the testing predicted that, of the 1535 drivers tested, 1-2% would be suffering from cognitive impairment (so 15 to 31 drivers, roughly). At the time of the hearing, only one driver was confirmed as having cognitive impairment and a second driver’s status was undetermined (so the true rate of cognitive impairment was 0.12%, or one-tenth the rate the testing firm asserted). The screening tool sent 88 drivers for medical assessment, of whom the vast majority were false positives. (A small number of other drivers returned to work with modest work restrictions related to other medical conditions.)
This sort of outcome (where the proponents vastly over-state the true level of risk in order to push forward with testing) is not uncommon. Random drug testing is another example where, despite decades of effort, there is no good evidence that random testing reduces injuries. Certainly, we would expect a company that is selling testing to make claims that create the appearance that their product is valuable to potential clients. And, these kinds of circumstances are why, generally speaking, we expect those who make a claim to substantiate it.
It is also interesting to note the uneven application of the better safe than sorry principle by employers.
- When it is employees who bear the cost of an OHS intervention (i.e., have their privacy invaded), employers are happy to play by better safe than sorry and not demand high levels of proof.
- When employers must bear the cost (e.g., face disrupted production or higher material costs) because workers have concerns about unsafe working conditions or materials, employers generally demand very high levels of proof before they will alter their processes.
-- Bob Barnetson