HAIR FOLLICLE TESTING, IS IT BETTER?
Urine versus hair is not what our mothers would call good table talk. Nevertheless, urine drug testing versus hair follicle drug testing methods has become a hot topic of late in the trucking community.
The primacy of urinalysis, the industry standard since the DOT began mandating drug tests back in 1991, is being challenged by hair follicle testing following the recent release of a study conducted by the University of Central Arkansas. The study sponsored by The Trucking Alliance, a consortium of American carriers, highlights the superior accuracy of hair testing and has renewed the drive for DOT to accept hair tests.
Hair Testing Detects Harder Drugs Better Than Urine
Research conducted by Doug Voss, Ph.D., Professor of Logistics and Supply Chain Management at the University of Central Arkansas (UCA) found that DOT through its exclusive use of urine testing is seriously underreporting the use of harder drugs by truck drivers such as cocaine and opioids. “Our analysis clearly concludes that hair testing identifies these harder drugs at higher percentages than the single urine testing method relied on by the federal government,” Voss stated in a Trucking Alliance release.
The study compared 1,429,842 truck driver pre-employment urine drug test results reported by the federal government’s Drug and Alcohol Clearinghouse with 593,832 urine and hair test results submitted by carriers in the Trucking Alliance. The Clearinghouse is administered by the DOT’s Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA), but the agency only accepts urine test results.
Although hair follicle testing is not DOT-approved, it's not the DOT or FMCSA’s fault. Nor is hair testing’s efficacy or legitimacy an issue. The FAST Act, signed into law in December 2015, allows for hair follicle testing as an approved testing method pending the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) publishing proposed guidelines. The problem is that HHS has not yet released those guidelines.
That may be changing soon. The HHS’s Drug Testing Advisory Board (DTAB) discussed proposed mandatory guidelines for drug testing using hair during a closed meeting in September.
Large Carriers Have Adopted Hair Follicle Testing
In the meantime, many large carriers, notably the members of the Trucking Alliance which includes the likes of Swift, J.B. Hunt, and Maverick, have implemented hair follicle drug testing in their organizations. Urine testing is still performed to comply with DOT standards, but hair testing is being used on a voluntary basis because of the advantages it provides in both pre-employment tests and random tests.
Hair Testing Detects Habitual Drug Use Better Than Urinalysis
The advantages provided by hair testing are well-established. According to findings published in 1995 by researchers, Robert DuPont and Werner Baumgartner in ScienceDirect, both hair analysis and urinalysis reliably detect drug use but hair follicle testing is better when it comes to identifying a history of drug use.
Their article states, “Hair analysis provides long-term information, from months to years, concerning both the severity and pattern of drug use. In contrast to this, urinalysis can indicate only drug use, and then generally only that which has occurred within the last two to three days.”
Hair testing can detect drug use as far back as 90 days. This is especially beneficial to carriers because it enables them to identify a pattern of drug use that puts their company and the public at risk. In the case of pre-employment drug tests, having this extended window can save a carrier from hiring a habitual user who may fail a drug test later—or worse get in an accident—down the road. Considering the estimated cost of replacing an employee of $14,000, a pre-employment hair follicle test that costs a few hundred dollars is well worth considering.
Proponents say hair testing provides better test integrity. To pass a urinalysis test, a driver could simply stop using drugs for a few days prior to the test to avoid detection. Hair strands contain evidence of drug use up to three months prior to the test.
Urinalysis tests are easier to cheat on, too, either by sending a stand-in, diluting the sample, or switching it with a “clean” specimen. In contrast, hair specimens are collected in full view by authorized personnel using a pair of scissors. Fewer opportunities to breach security increase the certainty of hair follicle testing results.
Hair Follicle Testing Favored for Trucking
Hair follicle testing outperforms urinalysis in overall drug detection. The UCA study found hair testing identified the presence of drugs 825% more frequently than urine testing alone. It also found that while urine testing is effective at detecting marijuana, hair testing is effective at detecting marijuana, as well as a higher percentage of harder drugs, like cocaine, heroin, and opioids. The research revealed that with hair testing, cocaine was identified 16.20% more frequently and opioids were identified 14.34% more frequently than urine tests.
Based on these statistics, 58,910 more drivers would have failed drug tests and been disqualified from driving in 2020 if hair follicle testing had been used.
These findings track with what we at TeamOne Logistics are hearing from our partners. One senior safety manager reported, “We have been requiring hair follicle testing for more than 9 years and we see FAR more positive hair results than we do positive UDS (urine drug screenings). Recently we received 2 positive UDS and 9 positive hair follicle samples which we would have missed had we solely tested UDS.”
Hair follicle testing’s ability to lower the risk to safety on the road and the liability companies carry is undeniable. Urinalysis, while cheap and widely accepted, has its limitations in identifying habitual drug use and abuse as well as the hardest drugs out there.
These limitations have a cost because urinalysis detects fewer offenders and provides less of a deterrent. According to a study conducted by the National Library of Medicine, 25% of truck drivers killed in motor vehicle accidents tested positive for drugs.
In the interest of reducing truck crash injuries and deaths, carriers should consider adopting hair follicle testing sooner rather than later. Doing so would keep more drivers who are using drugs from driving—as well as discourage more drivers from using drugs.
The senior safety manager we interviewed adds, “We have not tracked the reduction in crashes or injuries since implementing hair follicle testing but can confidently state that hair testing helps prevent our company from putting potentially dangerous drivers in our trucks by identifying long-term behaviors/decisions.”
Is hair follicle drug testing better? Research, data, and the many companies actively testing with it say yes. Even though hair follicle testing is currently not required, there is a strong possibility it will be in the future.
Prepare Now for Hair Follicle Testing
Compliance with DOT drug testing regulations is ultimately the responsibility of the carrier. Carriers should consider how they’ll make a smooth transition to hair follicle testing if and when it is introduced. Properly conducting drug tests and providing required documentation in a timely and accurate manner is crucial. Carriers and fleets who fail to conduct tests or provide necessary documentation face fines starting at $1,000 a day for recordkeeping failures and up to $10,000 a day for falsifying records.
Key Considerations for Carriers and Fleets Switching to Hair Testing
- Working policies for hair follicle testing for pre-employment, random, post-accident, and reasonable suspicion
- Access to reputable drug testing facilities with fast turnaround and competitive pricing
- Ramp-up time to ensure testing facilities are prepared, understand the requirements, are trained on the proper collection and handling of the hair samples, and commit to your company’s testing protocols
- Potential delays in the hiring process because follicle testing can take slightly longer, according to the safety manager we spoke to.
- Employee education and supervisor training in the procedures of hair follicle testing
- Contingencies for implementing a robust return-to-duty program to accommodate a potential increase in drivers who test positive for drugs
- Expanded partnerships with substance abuse professionals to potentially handle a greater influx of drivers in prohibited status for failed drug tests
Maintaining drug and alcohol compliance in a changing environment can drain company time and resources while exposing carriers to unnecessary risk when tasks fall through the cracks.
TeamOne Logistics can help you tailor drug & alcohol testing best practices for your recruitment, retention, and safety programs now and when hair follicle testing finally rears its head. Reach out to get started.