This story appears in the Jan. 23 print edition of Transport Topics.
Federal regulators last week revealed that six large motor carriers are seeking an exemption to hiring that, if granted, would allow them to conduct pre-employment drug and alcohol testing for drivers using hair samples in lieu of the current requirement that the tests be conducted using urine samples.
The exemption request, originally filed by the carriers Oct. 28 with the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, was not made public before a Jan. 19 agency Federal Register notice.
The six carriers that filed the request are J.B. Hunt Transport Inc., Schneider National Carriers Inc., Werner Enterprises Inc., Knight Transportation Inc., Dupré Logistics Inc. and Maverick Transportation.
All of the companies making the request conduct the pre-employment tests using urine and hair samples, but all have complained for several years that doing both tests is redundant and costly and that hair testing is more reliable.
“Petitioners have utilized such procedures to augment urinalysis testing for several years, and the data they have collected from the hair analysis overwhelmingly demonstrates that it is a more reliable and comprehensive basis for ensuring detection of controlled substance use,” according to the 18-page petition letter, obtained by Transport Topics.
The carriers said that doing urine and hair testing for a large carrier can cost an additional $450,000 a year. The average hair test cost is about $70, while a urine test costs about $35, the letter said.
The petition letter also argued that, from May 2006 to May 2016, the six carriers collectively had more than 7,000 drivers whose tests showed controlled substance use on hair tests but who passed urine tests.
FMCSA said that if the exemption is granted, the carriers would be permitted to conduct pre-employment tests using hair analysis only. However, they would be required to share positive hair testing results with prospective employers in response to safety performance inquiries, the agency said in its announcement.
FMCSA spokesman Duane DeBruyne acknowledged receipt of the exemption request but declined further comment.
Although FMCSA has the authority in certain cases to exempt carriers from regulatory requirements, allowing the hair sample exemption could be an uphill battle for the carriers.
But even if the exemption is denied, a hair-testing rule could soon be on the books.
American Trucking Associations, which supports hair sample testing, played a role in supporting a mandate in the 2015 transportation law known as the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act that requires the Department of Health and Human Services to implement a hair-test rule by Dec. 4, 2016, said Abigail Potter, ATA’s manager of safety and occupational health policy.
“ATA was pleased to help several trucking companies secure language in the FAST Act that permits hair testing as an alternative to urinalysis but unfortunately did not permit these types of exemptions,” Potter said.
But the Dec. 4 congressional deadline for a hair-test rule has passed, and progress on the hair option has been delayed until a drug-testing advisory board of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, an HHS subagency, eliminates potential concerns “regarding the scientific methodology and forensic defensibility of hair testing” as well as legal and public policy questions, advisory board Chairman Ron Flegel said.
A spokesman for SAMHSA did not respond to a request for comment by press time.
“ATA will continue to work with [the Department of Transportation] and the Department of Health and Human Services to implement the requirements put forth in the FAST Act in an expeditious and scientifically sound fashion, and we will encourage adoption of this important safety policy as quickly as possible,” Potter said.
Until then, the Omnibus Transportation Employee Testing Act of 1991 requires FMCSA to follow HHS mandatory guidelines that are adopted by DOT.
FMCSA said that while DOT has discretion with many aspects of the regulations governing testing in the transportation industries’ regulated programs, it must follow HHS mandatory guidelines for the laboratory standards and procedures for regulated testing.
The six carriers don’t want to wait.
“The applicants believe their data … ‘demonstrates that hair analysis is a more reliable and comprehensive basis for ensuring detection of controlled substance use,’ and the exemption would enable these fleets to discontinue pre-employment urine testing,” according to the FMCSA announcement.
FMCSA said it will accept public comment on the exemption request through Feb. 18.