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One Step Forward & Two Steps Back: An Analysis of HHS’ Recent Hair Testing Guidelines

By Dave Osiecki & Sean Garney of Scopelitis Transportation Consulting LLC & Regulatory Consultants to DriverReach – September, 2020

Hair testing drivers for drugs has been used voluntarily in the trucking industry for years. Proponents will tell you they prefer hair testing over urinalysis because of its longer detection window, the fact that it's easily collected and more difficult to substitute or adulterate because it’s collected under direct observation. It has also resulted in higher rates of positive test results compared to traditional urinalysis. The same proponents are usually quick to share that by using hair testing for pre-employment tests the positive rates of other required tests, including post-crash and random, drop significantly because hair testing helps to identify and eliminate “lifestyle” drug users from the carrier’s driver pool.

To those that have voluntarily adopted hair testing and experienced the benefit first-hand, the real tragedy from a safety perspective is that they can’t share positive test results with the broader trucking industry because hair testing isn’t a DOT recognized testing method. This means the results may not be uploaded into the FMCSA’s Drug and Alcohol Clearinghouse and cannot be reported to carriers making the DOT-required pre-employment inquiry.

For years, these advocates have asked, and even pleaded with, DOT officials to allow them to use hair testing in lieu of urinalysis for DOT-required pre-employment and random drug tests. The problem is that for the Department of Transportation to allow it, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) must first issue technical guidelines to ensure everyone is following a standard methodology. Earlier this month, after more than 20 years of discussions and scientific inquiry, HHS’ proposed guidelines were published.

Unfortunately, HHS fell far short of expectations by proposing to allow hair testing but to require all positive results be confirmed by a positive test from another approved specimen type (mainly urinalysis). So, if a hair test is positive for drugs but the urine screen comes back negative, it is considered a negative result.

Fleets that have already voluntarily adopted hair testing outside of the DOT-required testing program were hoping the new guidelines would allow them to abandon urinalysis for pre-employment and random testing. Instead, they may consider abandoning their hair testing program because the new rules may make it harder to not hire a lifestyle drug user who fails a hair test but passes a urine screen. This disincentive may also discourage companies considering adopting hair testing from doing so for the same reason. If the HHS proposal is adopted as written, the industry’s long fight to improve safety by encouraging the adoption of hair testing as a regulated testing method may be in serious danger.

The HHS proposal is a long way from becoming an approved testing method for the trucking industry. HHS must first finalize their guidelines before the Department of Transportation can adopt them as part of the federal procedures for transportation workplace drug testing. An optimistic estimate of how long this might take would be 2-3 years. Sadly, while this proposal is an important step in a long process, many will view it as one step forward, and two steps back.

Industry supporters of hair testing should act now if they hope to see hair testing become a useful, regulated testing method. They can do that by commenting on HHS’ proposal and encouraging them to adopt guidelines that reflect current industry practice and reinforce the real-life results of early adopters. As HHS has requested, carriers should also comment on the additional burden of collecting and testing an alternative specimen and provide any data they may have to support their conclusions.

Interested parties can comment by going clicking here. Comments are due by November 9, 2020.

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