Trucking industry pushes feds for hair testing guidelines for drug testing

by Jeff Della Rosa ([email protected]) 1,015 views 

American Trucking Associations spearheaded efforts to allow carriers to use hair testing as an alternative to urinalysis for drug testing truck drivers, and a recently approved highway bill will allow for this. But the trucking industry is awaiting guidance from the federal government before replacing urinalysis with hair testing.

In March, Chris Spear, president and CEO for the American Trucking Associations, sent a letter urging Tom Price, secretary of Health and Human Services, to quickly issue guidelines. This month, the trucking association and federal agency continue to discuss “the importance of the agency setting standards for testing as Congress has mandated,” ATA spokesman Sean McNally said. The ATA expects the guidelines to be released this year.

“Once released, ATA will continue to urge the department to move quickly in finalizing the hair testing standards,” he said. “These standards are the first step toward wider use of this important safety screening tool. Hair samples, rather than traditional urinalysis has proven to screen out a higher percentage of drug users during the pre-employment screening process.”

This keeps “potential unsafe drives out from behind the wheel of our industry’s trucks. This is good for the safety of our roads.” Since 1995, the Department of Transportation has required prospective truck drivers to take a drug test, and the only sample allowed for this testing is urine. Some carriers, including J.B. Hunt Transport Services, have been using hair testing along with the required urine testing. The Lowell-based carrier can test drivers before being hired, randomly, after an accident or as part of “reasonable suspicion procedures,” said Greer Woodruff, senior vice president of safety, security and driver personnel.

When asked if a driver were on a family vacation and smoked marijuana in Colorado, where it’s legal, what ramifications would the driver face, Woodruff said the driver would be “terminated upon admission of use or upon testing positive on any of the above-mentioned tests. Marijuana is still illegal on a federal level and against our company policy.”

Woodruff cited a DOT notice on marijuana use: “We want to make it perfectly clear that the state initiatives will have no bearing on the Department of Transportation’s regulated drug testing program.” DOT regulations don’t allow the use of schedule I drugs, including marijuana.

In 2006, J.B. Hunt began hair testing along with urinalysis. And while the company “acknowledges that both tests are accurate, it has been proven that urine testing for pre-employment is easily circumvented by users of controlled substances. Hair testing removes the opportunity for specimen substitution or adulteration, because each specimen is an observed collection.” Also, “the substance detection window is longer for hair testing, up to 90 days, making it less likely for habitual users to pass the test.”

The company is one of several carriers asking the federal government to allow hair testing as an alternative to urine testing. It’s willing to pay the additional costs for hair testing but objects “to funding the redundant and less effective urine testing process along with it,” Woodruff said. Using both testing methods “can add up in time and money.”

Hair testing is about twice as expensive as urinalysis, McNally said.

“One of the reasons ATA is pressing so hard for HHS to set standards for these tests is so they become more widely adopted — not only to reduce costs by eliminating redundant testing, but hopefully by driving down the costs of hair testing by increasing the number of test performed annually.”

When J.B. Hunt started hair testing in 2006, 3.66% of truck drivers who were tested after an accident failed the test or tested positive for drugs.

“After implementing hair testing, J.B. Hunt experienced seven consecutive years without a DOT post-accident positive rate, and our overall DOT post-accident positive rate decreased to 0.74% in 2016,” Woodruff said.

In the United States, 2.6% of long-haul drivers reported being in a crash over a one-year period, and 24% reported at least one near miss in the past seven days, according to a study by Edmarlon Girotto on the correlation between drivers’ experience level and how often they report crashes or near-miss accidents. The study, which was published in Accident Analysis & Prevention in 2016, found that drivers in Brazil with more experience reported being involved in fewer crashes and near-miss accidents “regardless of age, substance use, working conditions and behavior in traffic.”

More than 10% of truck drivers in Brazil reported using illicit drugs in a 30-day period, and the majority of drugs used were amphetamines, according to 2015 study by Girotto on illicit drug use. Truck drivers who used drugs mostly drove at night, were tired and earned more, “regardless of other working characteristics, sociodemographic and lifestyle variables.” The study, which suggested improving working conditions might lead to decreased drug use, showed a lower prevalence of drug use than compared to studies conducted in the United States, Australia and Italy.

Use of psychoactive substances by truck drivers is a “relatively frequent occurrence,” according to a 2013 study by Girotto. Substance use was mainly associated with poor working conditions, and substances included in the study were alcohol, amphetamines, marijuana and cocaine. The majority of data used for the study was from drivers in Brazil, the United States and Australia.
Between 2006 and 2016, the positive test rate for random testing of J.B. Hunt drivers declined to 0.45%, from 1.35%. Over the same period, the rate of prospective drivers who failed the test declined to 2.69%, from 4.10%.

For J.B. Hunt employees who admit to alcohol misuse or using controlled substances before a test notification, the company offers a voluntary assistance program to allow them to receive help without recourse. Existing or prospective truck drivers who fail a drug test will either be let go or refused employment.

“However, once that individual completed an acceptable substance abuse program, he or she would be eligible for consideration in a driving position as long as all other qualification requirements are also met,” Woodruff said.