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Worker Rights Vs. Public Risk : Appeals Court to Hear Challenge to Drug Testing at San Onofre Nuclear Plant

January 31, 1988|ERIC SCHINE | Times Staff Writer

"We are all for safety. We do not take a casual view of this because, should there be a safety problem, we are the first to be affected," said Carl Wood, a San Onofre electrician who took a leave of absence to work full time for the Utility Workers Union of America, the union representing San Onofre workers.

"I don't want to be working up on a live wire next to some guy stoned on dope," Wood said. "But at the same time, I don't want my own livelihood and career put in jeopardy by a test that may or may not be valid."

A Security Measure

Edison officials disagree. "The company sees drug testing as a security measure that is required for safe operation of the facility," said Wesley Moody, deputy site manager at the nuclear plant. "This isn't something with which we need to go to the bargaining table."

Under the drug test rules established by the company, a worker whose urine tests positive is denied his red badge, which allows access to sensitive areas of the company. He is also given frequent follow-up tests and psychological examinations.

Should a San Onofre worker test positive a second time, he is suspended for 30 days without pay and must attend a mandatory rehabilitation program. Upon testing positive a third time, a worker will be fired, Moody said.

"The test is best described as one part of an overall security program controlling access to a restricted area," said Mark Mikulka, a staff attorney for Southern California Edison. "The idea is not all that different from metal detectors at the airport."

Testing Rules Changed

When the program was initiated in 1984, all red-badged workers were tested annually on a fairly predictable schedule. The 24-hour notice was introduced late in 1986 to tighten the testing procedure and deter drug users from applying for work at the company, Moody said.

After administering the test 23,000 times, Southern California Edison has fired approximately 30 workers who each tested positive three successive times, Moody said. Several others who tested positive at least once either resigned or were transferred to other Edison operations.

"We view ourselves as being in a position of public trust," Moody said. "The public has the right to expect us to run the plant in a safe manner. And to do that, we must ascertain that the people here are free of any impairment."

Critics argue that San Onofre's testing program is a quick-fix response to a serious problem and doesn't really address the question of on-the-job impairment.

Impairment Versus Use

What's needed, they say, is more awareness on the part of supervisors that a worker may have a drug problem.

"My concern is not with the guy who smokes a joint on Saturday night, but with the one who does a line of coke on the way to work on Monday morning and is misreading dials," said Ted Schramm, president of Behavior Research Inc., a firm that assists companies in setting up drug-testing programs.

"Southern California Edison really didn't need to play cops and robbers, because that won't solve the problem," Schramm said.

According to Rothner, "The most that random drug testing can accomplish is to confirm or corroborate that impairment may have been the result of recent drug use. It will not tell you when the drug was consumed, how much was consumed or the current impairment level, if any, of the worker."

Subtle Impairment

Still, experts who side with the industry stress that random drug testing is essential to ferret out drug users who show no apparent signs of impairment.

"A blatantly stoned-out worker, from alcohol or other drugs, is easy to identify," said Peter Bensinger, a former director of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency and a leading proponent of the kind of testing program used by San Onofre.

"But there is another level of impairment, which includes depression, anxiety and paranoia, that is not readily apparent by mere observation," Bensinger said.

Bensinger has testified on behalf of Edison in the San Onofre case. He is president of Bensinger, DuPont & Associates, which advises many corporations on their drug-testing policies.

Pilots Studied

In a key portion of his testimony in the San Onofre case, Bensinger cited a 1986 Stanford University study that tested the effects of marijuana on airline pilots. An hour after smoking pot, 10 pilots were asked to make simulated landings. They missed the landing by an average of 32 feet, Bensinger said. After four hours, they missed the landing by 29 feet, and after 24 hours, they missed by 24 feet.

When asked how they felt, all of the pilots said they felt fine, Bensinger said. "They were completely incorrect in their own self-assessment," he said. "While you can smell alcohol, the effects of marijuana and cocaine are far more subtle. A supervisor just can't tell who's on drugs."

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