March 20, 2017 6:00 PM, EDT

Despite Mandate, Hair Testing Rule Still Months Away

Whiteside by Eric Miller/Transport Topics
A proposed rule that would allow trucking companies to conduct government-certified pre-employment drug testing using hair samples likely will not be publicly released until the end of 2017 or early 2018, according to a top official with the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

Despite a congressional mandate that a hair testing rule be in place by Dec. 4, 2016, Ron Flegel, chairman of SAMHSA’s drug testing advisory board, told Transport Topics that the group of scientific experts and drug lab executives still are working on ironing out concerns raised by the Department of Health and Human Services, the agency with ultimate responsibility for issuing a rule.

SAMHSA is a subagency of DHHS.

“The big thing is that we’ve put the proposal forward as far as HHS,” Flegel said. “We’ve received their comments back, and we’re working to try and resolve some of those comments. There are a number of things there that we’re looking at that we’re trying to answer, scientific and technical.”

Flegel made his comments March 21, after the first of two days of meetings by the 10-member board. The board was scheduled to meet behind closed doors for several hours on both days to discuss hair testing.

Flegel said that members of Congress have come to the agency “to talk about their concerns.”

“I think they’ve also talked to the Department of Transportation,” Flegel added.

For the first time, the board listened to a presentation by one of the trucking industry’s largest motor carriers, J.B. Hunt Transport Inc.

Hunt, which has been pushing hard for years to allow hair samples to be an alternative method to urine drug testing, was one of six large motor carriers to recently petition the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration to allow hair testing until more formal guidance is authorized by HHS, and adopted by the Department of Transportation.

The other carriers to petition FMCSA were Schneider, Werner Enterprises Inc., Knight Transportation Inc., Dupre Logistics Inc. and Maverick Transportation.

Hunt has been using hair samples for drug testing, in addition to DOT-required urine testing, for more than a decade  after two fatal accidents in which its drivers were found to be using cocaine, said David Whiteside, the carrier’s senior director of compliance.

“We were left with families that lost loved ones that we had to sit down across the table from and explain to them what happened — and we did,” Whiteside told the drug advisory board. “We did not withhold any information, and we let them know what the results of the tests were.”

It was then that the company realized that urine testing was not reliable as a sole measurement, partly because drivers were not directly observed when the samples were collected. Not only do hair samples have a longer detection window — up to 90 days — but the samples are collected in an “observed test,” Whiteside said, preventing drivers from cheating.

From 2006 to 2016, Hunt has performed more than 103,000 combined hair and urine drug tests. Of that total, 4,728 prospective drivers passed urine tests but failed hair tests, Whiteside said.

In a March 20 letter to Thomas Price, Health and Human Services secretary, American Trucking Associations President Chris Spear complained that a “lack of action” to comply with the congressional mandate is “having real impacts on the industry.”

Spear asked that the department take “swift action” to complete the hair testing guidelines.

“Many trucking companies are using urinalysis to meet federal requirements, while also paying the additional cost to conduct hair testing,” Spear said in his letter. “We are frustrated that the previous administration failed to meet the statutory deadline and believe your leadership will finally see a resolution to this long-standing and important safety rule.”

Abigail Potter, manager of safety and occupational health policy for American Trucking Associations, urged the drug board to “swiftly take action to complete these guidelines.”

“Doing so will pave the way for trucking companies to greater utilize this pro-safety testing method and identify a greater number of safety-sensitive employees who violate federal drug testing regulations,” Potter added.