Drug testing part of life as a liftee south of the border
Critics may charge that Canada is becoming more and more "Americanized," but one of the remaining differences between corporate culture in Canada and the U.S. can be seen at ski areas.
Random drug testing of employees is now standard procedure at most Washington state ski areas. According to a report in the Seattle Times, one recent test at Crystal Mountain targetted a high percentage of cat drivers.
"A couple of employees refused to take the test. Others took it and tested positive. At Crystal, that means you enter a counseling and treatment program or you're fired," reporter Ron Judd wrote in the Feb. 23 Times.
Crystal President Tom Leonard told the Seattle paper about 60 employees were tested in January, with "eight or 10" testing positive. Four are no longer with the company.
The Times reported that Snoqualmie Pass does random tests of its 1,200 employees and also conducts "for cause" tests on all employees involved in an accident. This season Crystal has added drug screening of all new employees to its random program, while White Pass and Stevens Pass do random testing. The only Washington ski area identified as not doing testing is Mount Baker.
North of the border it’s a different story. Blackcomb General Manager John Birrell says no ski area in Canada is doing drug testing of employees.
"Blackcomb’s adopting a wait and see attitude," Birrell says. "There are inconsistencies in the tests and so many things that can cause a wrong response. There are also questions about the time-frame for alcohol, what effect it has and how long it lasts."
Whistler Mountain Ski Corporation Marketing Director David Perry also notes there are questions about the accuracy of the tests, but says the first step is to determine how big an issue drug use is.
"We believe we have the highest calibre of employee we have ever had," Perry says.
He adds the image presented in the Seattle Times story, of laid-back ski bums running the lifts, is 20 years out of date in Whistler.
"That’s not the kind of employee we have in Whistler."
It may not be the kind of employee in Washington state, either. Ski area operators there say knowledge of the tests has led to a "higher quality" of job applicants.
But if drug use is determined to be an issue, Perry says, "then Whistler Mountain would have to introduce a program in a way that was beneficial to our employees."
Both Birrell and Perry point out that drug testing of employees in general is more common in the United States than in Canada.
"You have to ask, is it a workplace issue or a societal issue," Perry says.
But the real reason behind drug testing may be insurance and liability costs, which are bigger issues in the United States than in Canada.
Judd wrote in The Times: "To (ski area operators) drug testing is necessary in an industry with the lurking potential for huge financial liability if a skier should fall on a shoddily groomed slope and break his or her head.
"The Northwest ski industry as a whole faced that reality four years ago, and drug testing has increased in intensity since."
While there are no immediate plans to implement drug testing at local ski areas, Birrell has asked that the issue be put on the agenda at a joint meeting of the Canada West Ski Areas Association and the Northwest Ski Areas Association in Kelowna in May.