Last updated: October 2, 2023
The Department of Transportation (DOT) began discussing whether it should allow hair follicle drug testing back in 1997 when it was first released. It was 2004 before the DOT submitted a proposal to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) requesting the new drug test be allowed. However, HHS rejected the proposal due to concerns of test accuracy.
In 2015, the DOT resubmitted its proposal and it has been slowly making its way through the chain-of-command ever since.
You would think that HHS wouldn’t hesitate to add the hair follicle test to its approved methods for detecting drug use among the safety-sensitive workforce. The DOT listed several benefits to using the hair follicle test rather than the urine test within the proposal.
- Longer detection period
- Ease of collection
- Directly observed
- No possibility of tampering
- No bodily fluids involved
There’s a downside
Apparently, one wrench in the works is the agency’s concern about the proposal’s request to use a two-test approach. The hair test would be used in conjunction with either the urine or oral fluid test either simultaneously or after verification of a positive hair test result.
That’s due to reports of possible flaws in the test. Someone who received a positive result might seek legal counsel. The American Trucking Association (ATA), a leading industry group for trucking companies, initially announced concern with taking this approach because it undermines the effectiveness of the hair follicle drug test.
The two-test approach is being considered because false positives might be triggered for two reasons. They are:
- Environmental contamination of hair
- Disparities from person to person based on hair color.
Studies have shown that melanin pigments could possibly influence the amount of drug incorporated into the hair. That could lead to variances among people groups and negatively effect minority groups with darker hair. Yet, there have been independent studies that concluded that neither hair color nor hair type effect the results of this test, as well, though.
The heated debate continues.
Meanwhile, in the trucking industry
Many trucking companies are choosing to update their drug testing policies to include the hair follicle test even without a federal mandate in place. They incur the cost of both the urine and hair follicle tests because the urine test is susceptible to tampering.
A person who suffers from drug addiction might try anything to keep their job. And, the trucking industry is discovering that when comparing the results of employees who submit to both a urine and hair test, their tactics are working.
The Alliance for Driver Safety & Security (AFDSS), which includes members such as J.B. Hunt, Knight Transportation, and KLLM Transport Services, hair tests all drivers independently of any federal standards. A comparison study was done on those results. The findings proved that the urine test is not as accurate as some believed.
According to the researchers who conducted the study at the University of Central Arkansas (UCA), commercial truck drivers in the United States are driving while impaired by drug use much more often than urine drug test results documented by the DOT Drug and Alcohol Clearinghouse.
Of course, the Clearinghouse only reports urine test results. It’s the only test approved by the DOT. However, when the UCA study compared both urine and hair test results of the drivers affiliated with AFDSS, it was discovered that the DOT is seriously underreporting the actual use of harder drugs by truck drivers. In fact, they went so far as to say cocaine is the most abused drug rather than marijuana as reported by the Clearinghouse earlier this year.
The Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association (OOIDA) didn’t accept the UCA study’s findings and did its own analysis of the data. Its stance is that perhaps these larger companies are inviting employees who are more likely to use drugs. In fact, the president of OOIDA came back with a sobering reply after the additional study was complete.
“What the Trucking Alliance is claiming cannot possibly be extrapolated to the entire industry,” he said. “They really should be taking a closer look at why their carriers are so attractive to potential employees that use illegal drugs. And, any shipper that uses those companies might also take note.”
The long and short of it
Whether or not big trucking companies in the industry are “inviting” drivers who abuse drugs really isn’t the issue. Drug abuse takes place worldwide in every industry known to man. As long as people feel the need to use drugs and alcohol as a coping mechanism, there’s going to be a problem in the workplace—that includes the open road.
Technology continues to advance in the drug testing industry. It’s getting harder for those using drugs to “get over” on their employers with a false-negative test result. And, it appears that the hair follicle drug test may eventually overtake the urine drug test as the most popular drug testing method.
It offers a 90-day detection period and is far less invasive than the urine test. Moreover, the hair test is the least invasive of the employee drug testing methods. This is in contrast to the urine test being the most invasive.
The test is quick and easy too. In fact, technicians could easily administer the test onsite. That completely eliminates travel time to a testing facility. A quick snip of the scissors and the employee can head back to work.
Until all the issues get worked out, some employers in the trucking industry are going the extra mile for us. They clearly want to do everything they can to keep our roadways safe. They’re choosing to incur the added expense of testing their drivers twice.
We thank you.