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June 6, 2016 3:45 AM, EDT

Delays in Approving Hair Testing Aid Drug Abusers, Officials Warn

Quest Diagnostics

This story appears in the June 6 print edition of Transport Topics.

Delays in adopting federally mandated pre-employment hair drug-testing standards potentially have allowed hundreds of truck drivers who failed hair drug tests to drive for another carrier, according to fleet and medical executives.

“Drivers who fail pre-employment hair tests can simply seek employment with other carriers where they can more easily pass a pre-employment urine drug test, without fear that their positive hair test results will follow them,” Dave Osiecki, chief of national advocacy for American Trucking Associations, wrote in a letter last month to a top federal drug agency official.

Osiecki was referring to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s process of adopting mandatory hair drug- testing standards that carriers and other federal agencies can use to test prospective employees.

SAMHSA, a subagency of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, has been studying hair testing since 2004. Now HHS, which is responsible for setting drug-testing standards for all federal employees, is under a congressional mandate to adopt a hair-testing standard by December.

Current federally mandated urine tests check for use of marijuana, cocaine, amphetamines, opiates and phencyclidine, or PCP.

Frustrated by yearslong delays, a substantial number of mostly large motor carriers already have implemented hair testing on their own alongside DOT-mandated urine tests. However, privacy laws do not permit those carriers to share those hair test failures with other carriers, said Ronald Flegel, SAMHSA’S director of workplace programs and chairman of the agency’s drug testing advisory board.

Some of those carriers that have gone to the extra expense of hair testing — which can detect drug use up to 90 days — are seeing patterns that support the contention that they better identify “lifestyle drug use.”

Tom DiSalvi, vice president of safety and loss prevention for Schneider, said the truckload and intermodal carrier has hair-tested thousands of drivers over the past eight years.

“There is a dramatic difference in positive rates: 0.36% of applicants tested positive with a urine test, while 3.67% of the same applicants tested positive using a hair test,” DiSalvi said in an e-mail to Transport Topics. “This means there are thousands of seemingly qualified driving candidates that have been turned down by Schneider for chronic drug use, but who are now driving for companies that don’t use pre-employment hair testing.”

DiSalvi added: “Schneider believes that if you are serious about eliminating chronic drug use in the industry, then hair testing should be used for screening applicants.”

Likewise, Dean Newell, vice president of safety and driver training for Maverick Transportation, said his carrier is seeing similar results since it first added hair testing to its employee screening in 2012.

Since then, more than 100 of 103 applicants who failed a hair drug test passed their urine tests at the same time, Newell said.

“Anybody could stay clean for a week and typically pass a urine test,” Newell told TT, “but they wouldn’t be able to pass the hair test.”

Kelly Osterlitz, an executive with commercial drug tester FirstLab, said that 3% to 5% of pre-employment hair tests conducted by the lab were positive for drugs, but only 0.5% of urine tests were positive.

“It has always been a concern in the industry that information regarding drug users can’t be shared, thus putting the motoring public in danger,” Osterlitz said.

Several other labs and carriers that test hair did not respond to requests for comment, but in the past have been strong advocates of mandatory hair testing.

Abigail Potter, an ATA research analyst, said drug use among drivers is fairly rare.

“However, when people are using when they’re on duty, it can be extremely costly to life and financially,” Potter said. “These are people we don’t want on the highways driving a very large truck.”

While federal substance abuse officials have their eyes on the December congressional mandate, Flegel said it could be another two years before HHS issues hair testing standards.

Flegel said SAMHSA and HHS last month assembled 25 national experts for a “scientific and technical” closed-door meeting for three days in Washington to discuss potential issues with hair testing. The group, whose names have not been made public, is in the process of compiling a paper that will discuss scientific evidence related to the reliability of hair testing. The paper could include recommendations for further research, he said.

That document then will be shared with HHS, which in turn will solicit comments from DOT and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, agencies that have expressed interest in adopting hair testing. Any subsequent proposed hair-testing standard would require a review by the White House Office of Management and Budget, Flegel said.

In May 2015, SAMHSA issued a proposed rule to permit the testing of oral fluid specimens for drugs and to include drug testing for certain synthetic opiates — hydrocodone, oxycodone, hydromorphone and oxymorphone. The agency has yet to issue final guidance.