Last updated: March 1, 2021
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), a part of the United States Department of Health and Human Services, is setting the stage to allow the hair follicle drug test to be used as an option for all federal employees. The proposed change, titled the Mandatory Guidelines for Federal Workplace Drug Testing Programs, was published as a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking in the Federal Register back in September 2020.
The proposal will be processed and set up to receive public comment for a period of time before it would become finalized. Federal employers and those regulated by a government entity, such as the Department of Transportation (DOT), would be responsible for creating their own separate set of rules for hair testing.
Is it part of the process?
If the DOT makes the change, it would affect all branches of the transportation industry regulated by the administration.
- National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA)
- Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)
- Federal Highway Administration (FHWA)
- Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA)
- Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA)
- Federal Railroad Administration (FRA)
- Maritime Administration (MARAD)
- Federal Transit Administration (FTA)
The DOT is likely to make changes to its regulations pretty quickly and allow the hair follicle test if it’s approved. It’s old news that the DOT filed a request to replace the urine test with the hair test. It’s been making its way through the chain-of-command for quite some time now.
The request hasn’t met with any resistance so far. Advocates expect it to be approved at some point. It sounds like SAMHSA’s decision to include it as an approved drug testing method is a step in the right direction.
Trucking companies approve
It turns out that there are a lot of employers in the transportation industry who believe the hair follicle drug test is more beneficial than the urine drug test. The hair test detects drug use for a ninety-day period. Employers feel that is important because it identifies a pattern of use.
The tests can determine if someone uses every day versus the occasional user for example. That’s not going to make a difference in whether or not someone tests positive and is hit with a drug violation. They will be. But, it could make a difference in the way an employer responds to the employee who may have a drug addiction.
Additionally, recent data released by the FMCSA’s Drug and Alcohol Clearinghouse indicates that the number of drivers who are trying to tamper with the results of a urine drug test is increasing at a fairly alarming rate.
Tampering occurs in a number of ways, some of which include:
- Submitting someone else’s urine
- Synthetic urine
- Consuming large amounts of liquid
But, drug testing companies and laboratories are on to their schemes. It’s hard to falsify the test results and actually get by with it. Still…
There’s no way to cheat with the hair follicle drug test. Test subjects never leave the technician’s sight. As for those home remedies or expensive shampoos that “remove or mask any drug metabolites” that have grown out into the hair—they don’t work.
Forging full steam ahead
The number of trucking companies that implement a hair follicle drug test in addition to the mandated urine drug test is growing. Employers—especially those looking for “lifestyle drug use”—see the advantage of the ninety-day identification window and realize the importance of not being able to falsify the test results.
They’re willing to incur the expense of a second test—which happens to be the most expensive—for safety’s sake.
The hope is that the hair follicle drug test will eventually replace the need for using any other type of drug test. Unfortunately, though, that doesn’t appear to be the case.
The wrench in the works
The problem with SAMHSA’s proposed regulation changes, according to some, is that the hair follicle drug test would require confirmation if an employee tests positive for drugs. When that happens, the employee must submit to a urine test to confirm the result. The reason behind that decision is that SAMHSA wants to avoid any legal issues that could result with hair drug testing.
Hair is subject to external contamination from the environment or from personal grooming products, such as shampoos, conditioners, and even hair color. Some people don’t think the hair test is fair because of the possibility of contamination. They believe it could influence the result of a drug test.
Hair testing also raises concern because of someone’s natural hair color—or pigmentation. Studies show that hair color can affect the absorption and retention of some drugs. Black and brown hair more readily retain evidence of drug use than red or blonde hair according to researchers. This raises a separate concern in regard to certain ethnic groups that have a prevalence for dark natural hair colors.
There is an exception to the dual test for confirmation though. Somewhat surprisingly, SAMHSA didn’t include marijuana as a drug that required confirmation. The specifics as to why aren’t readily apparent at this time.
Lastly, SAMHSA only proposes allowing hair follicle testing for pre-employment and random drug tests. This is because it takes five to seven days for drug metabolites to grow out into the hair shaft. It is not useful for determining recent drug use so won’t be effective for post-accident or reasonable suspicion circumstances.
Drivers who use drugs
Employers in the transportation industry that already use the hair follicle drug test report that it’s a huge success. It deters drug users from following through with employment. Drivers who hoped to get a job with the company turned around and walked out the door when they discovered they had to take a hair test.
That alone is a valid argument for using it, right? However, if it’s not a mandatory test across the board, the drug users will just roll on down the road. They’re sure to find an employer who doesn’t use it.
Perhaps SAMHSA will take that into consideration.