Worker loses first round in drug test fight

Last updated 11:12 31/10/2012

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A geothermal technician who was stood down from his job at Mighty River Power's (MRP) Kawerau power station for refusing to undergo a drug test will have to keep fighting the company for compensation for his "injured feelings".

Dean Cowell was suspended from work on August 31, only a week after MRP introduced an amendment to the company's random drug and alcohol testing policy via email.

His union, the Electrical Union, took the view that the policy amounted to a unilateral variation of the terms of the collective agreement and was "not lawful and reasonable". Cowell is also seeking compensation for injury to his feelings caused by the duress of the attempted drug test.

However the Employment Relations Authority (ERA) has delivered a preliminary ruling based only on whether MRP was entitled to deem Cowell's position "safety sensitive", meaning he was eligible to be tested, with the other issues to be decided later in November.

Cowell asserted there was nothing in his role that had any features that were safety sensitive, his role was not listed on the register of hazards at the site and there was no public safety risk because health and safety rules were followed.

However ERA member Rosemary Monaghan decided MRP did have the right to designate Cowell's job a "safety sensitive" one. She did not accept the submission that Cowell's job was not listed among the hazards for the worksite and was therefore not safety sensitive in itself.

"[The submission] does not address the role of drug and alcohol testing as one of the measures available to manage hazards, rather it asserts such testing is not necessary because sufficient measures are already in place."

Monaghan said that Cowell's argument did not preclude drug and alcohol testing because such measures were no different to those existing safety measures that he relied on in his workplace.

The ERA decision said MRP witnesses had set out the "substantial safety risks" associated with running a geothermal plant – including the extraction of high temperature steam from deep underground, the use of inflammable compounds, and the creation and transmission of extremely high voltages.

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