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July 11, 2011 4:30 AM, EDT
Hair Tests Gain Favor Over Urinalysis in Drug Screens by Larger Carriers
By Rip Watson, Senior Reporter

This story appears in the July 11 print edition of Transport Topics.

Hair tests, which could keep more drug-abusing drivers off the road, are starting to gain favor among larger carriers though the number using them still are few and far between, experts said.

C.R. England, Gordon Trucking and Roehl Transport, three Transport Topics Top 100 carriers, are recent converts to hair tests that were pioneered in trucking by J.B. Hunt Transport Services and later by Schneider National.

Proponents say hair tests have revealed as many as 12 times more positive tests, or failures, than the Department of Transportation’s mandatory urinalysis test, which tests for marijuana, cocaine, amphetamines, opiates and PCP. Hair tests can detect drugs at least 45 days after use, compared with just three or four days for urinalysis, several sources said.

“We feel pretty confident we will see the results that will make it worthwhile,” said Steve Gordon, chief operating officer at Gordon, which already disqualified two drivers in the first month that it did hair tests. “Hair is a more thorough test. We hope the industry follows in that direction.”

“We think [hair follicle] is actually a better test than urine,” said John Spiros, vice president of safety and compliance at Roehl, Marshfield, Wis., which started the tests in May. “Urine tests only give you recent results. Urine won’t pick up people who have a history of drug abuse.”

Though a few major fleets are doing hair samples, Ben Johnson, vice president of marketing for FleetScreen Ltd., Fort Worth, Texas, said fewer than 10 of his more than 3,000 carriers do the hair test, formally known as RIAH, or radio immuno assay of hair.

“The small to medium carrier just doesn’t have the financial resources a larger carrier has,” he told Transport Topics on June 28. “It’s because of the costs and the duplication of effort” since hair tests can’t be substituted for DOT’s urinalysis.

Hair tests, he explained, cost at least twice as much as urine tests, which start at around $35.

Based on that estimate, an $80 hair test done 1,000 times annually would eat up the entire $80,000 in profit for a carrier with $2 million revenue and a 96 operating ratio.

“The industrywide impact of being able to conduct a pre-employment drug test that reviews a longer screening history is a tremendous improvement over the current federally mandated requirements,” said Dustin England, vice president of C.R. England, which does hair tests on randomly selected candidates during the pre-employment process.

C.R. England found a positive rate of 11% in hair tests and 2.8% for urine tests when the company tested 2,000 candidates.

“Knowing we can keep more potentially dangerous drivers off the roads is a great feeling,” Dustin England said.

DOT last year proposed changes in testing procedures, which prompted American Trucking Associations to urge aggressive evaluation of hair tests.

However, ATA research analyst Abigail Potter told TT that ATA doesn’t expect action on hair testing until a separate review of testing by the Health and Human Services Department.

Both Don Osterberg, senior vice president at Schneider, and Ray Kubacki, CEO of testing firm Psychemedics, praised J.B. Hunt for pioneering the use of hair tests.

Osterberg said hair tests in trucking “still are in their infancy. There is not enough awareness of the success in detection.”

Kubacki said “it is a small group using hair samples, it’s true. The real significance is that two of the largest carriers are doing it.” Hunt ranks No. 8 on the Transport Topics 2010 listing of the Top 100 For-Hire Carriers in the United States and Canada, and Schneider is No. 9.

Osterberg told TT that Schneider had 964 positives out of 25,000 tests, while just 82 people failed the simultaneous urinalysis.

“That means there are 882 chronic users out there who aren’t driving an orange truck,” he said. “The bad news is they are out there driving for someone else, next to our families.”

“We view them as an obligation to the motoring public as a company in a safety sensitive industry that we have safe drivers on the road,” Osterberg said of hair tests.

“Once the economy improves more, you will see a greater increase in carriers adopting these tests,” Kubacki said. “The facts of life, which are incontrovertible, are that you identify more drug abusers with hair tests.”

Psychemedics, on its website, shows an 18% positive rate on a hair tests, compared with 2.7% on a urine test.

The tests were done on 774 workers at office equipment vendor Steelcase Co., Kubacki said.

Johnson said it’s far more difficult to cheat on a hair test because a person’s hair, typically taken from behind the ear, is unique. On the other hand, specimens can be doctored during the urine collection process if a laboratory isn’t vigilant in administering the test, he noted.

Kubacki said, “Hair testing, while relatively new in the trucking industry,” isn’t in corporate America. He said 10% of the Fortune 500 companies use his firm’s service.