Big truckload carriers ask FMCSA for hair drug testing

Big trucking carriers want the FMCSA to allow hair drug screenings in lieu of the required urinalysis for truck drivers for two reasons: hair testing is less expensive for the carrier and drug metabolites are detectable in hair for a much longer duration than urine. For example, cocaine use is detectable by urinalysis between two and five days after use, but can be detected in hair for up to 90 days after use. With hair analysis, trucking companies believe they will be able to identify all or most drug users, not just people who have used drugs immediately prior to their job application.

Six major carriers have asked the FMCSA for an exemption from urinalysis so they can switch exclusively to hair testing: J.B. Hunt, Schneider, Werner, Knight, Dupre Logistics, and Maverick. Schneider in particular said that by conducting side-by-side hair and urine screening, the company discovered that hair tests yield positive results at four times the rate of urinalysis. 

Because hair tests have a much longer detection period than urinalysis and have a correspondingly higher detection rate, switching to hair testing should bring significant safety improvements and lower insurance costs to carriers. In March 2016, Brazil began requiring all professional drivers in categories C, D, and E, to submit to hair testing in order to add these categories to their licenses or get their licenses renewed. Category C essentially corresponds to straight trucks, D covers drivers of rigid passenger buses, and E refers to semi-trucks and articulated buses. 

According to Brazil’s Federal Highway Police, 25,000 accidents were prevented that year, a drop of 21%, and deaths and disabilities from highway accidents dropped 39%. The new law also requires pre-employment hair screening for professional drivers, but that has yet to be completed rolled out. When the carriers, as well as state authorities, begin widespread hair testing, it will have an even more profound effect on the driver workforce than the first stage of testing. In 2016, 31% of drivers due for a license renewal simply opted to not renew it at all, and it isn’t clear whether capacity left the trucking market altogether or migrated into a more illicit space.

The United States would likely not experience such a dramatic safety improvement if mandatory hair testing were enacted, though. As Brazil’s strengthening economy brought a new generation into the middle class, drug use followed: Brazil now consumes about 18% of the world’s supply of cocaine, second only to the United States. Cocaine use was ubiquitous among Brazilian heavy-duty drivers prior to 2016, who used the powder to drive for days a stretch without sleeping. Cocaine affects the user’s vision, as well as judgment and ability to gauge risks, making it an especially dangerous drug for fatigued truck drivers to rely on.

It’s clear that truckload carriers have an interest in maintaining a drug-free workforce, and everyone who drives on the highways wants them to be safer. It’s unknown how stricter testing would affect the driver shortage, which has grown so severe it is threatening the entire economy, but it won’t help.

Hair testing has faced some of its own issues, though. The first issue is that hair exists outside of the body—unlike urine, blood, or a person’s breath—and can be exposed to drugs in a person’s environment. Microscopic particles of drugs readily bind to people’s hair, and some methods of hair testing cannot tell the difference between detectable amounts that were metabolized through a person’s body and detectable amounts that simply attached to a person’s hair without them consuming the drug. To get an idea of how much of a problem environmental contamination poses, consider the fact that between 80% and 94% of American paper currency tests positive for cocaine

A false positive from external contamination is more or less likely depending on the ethnicity of the person whose hair is being tested. African-Americans, who typically have more coarse hair that binds more readily to external contaminants, test positive on hair tests much more frequently than whites. In a lawsuit brought by African-American members of the Boston Police Department who were terminated after what they allege were false positive hair tests, seven years worth of the police department’s data revealed that African-Americans were testing positive at about five times the rate of whites. Eight officers, one cadet, and one 911 dispatcher sued, saying that hair tests had a statistically disparate impact on African-American employees in violation of Title 7 of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. After the district court granted summary judgment to the police department, the decision was reversed by the First Circuit. Now the appeal is still pending. “This was the second time the First Circuit found that the hair follicle test had a statistical disparate impact on African American officers,” wrote Doug Heise, a law partner at Heyl, Royster, Voelker, & Allen.

FreightWaves spoke on the phone with Ray Kubacki, the Chairman, President, and CEO of Psychemedics Corporation, the firm that essentially invented hair test drug screening thirty years ago. Psychemedics is the company  provides hair drug screening services for the Boston Police Department. Kubacki disputed the officers’ claim that their test results were false positives, but did not want to comment on the case beyond saying “Our science is rock-solid and we stand behind it,” but did offer some insight into Psychemedics’ hair testing processes. 

“We’ve patented the ability to liquefy the hair without destroying the drug,” said Kubacki. “But we didn’t patent our wash process, which rids the hair of all external contaminants. We published it—it’s available to any lab that wants to use it. Many don’t, though, because it takes 4 hours and costs money.” Kubacki cited a 2014 study published in the Journal of Analytical Toxicology titled “Analysis of Extensively Washed Hair from Cocaine Users and Drug Chemists to Establish New Reporting Criteria”. The study’s lead author, Cynthia L. Morris-Kukoski, works in the Chemistry Unit of the Federal Bureau of Investigation in Quantico. It is crucial for the FBI to be able to distinguish between hair that has been contaminated with drugs and hair from people who have ingested drugs, because many of their law enforcement officers, chemists, and pharmacological technicians handle drugs on a regular basis, but must also be drug-free.

Morris-Kukoski specifically analyzed the hair testing methods and wash processes used by Psychemedics Corporation. The first line in the paper’s Acknowledgements section reads “We would like to thank Michael Schaeffer and the staff at Psychemedics Corporation for their assistance with this research project,” and Schaeffer’s work is cited in  The study concluded that “When properly applied, the use of an extended wash, along with the reporting criteria defined here, will exclude false-positive results from environmental contact with COC [cocaine].”

Sikh drivers have brought legal challenges to hair testing for religious reasons. Three Sikh applicants to J. B. Hunt refused to take a pre-employment hair test because one of the five primary articles of faith for Sikhism is to maintain uncut hair. They were denied employment and filed a suit with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. In 2016, J. B. finally agreed to pay the drivers $260,000, change its hiring processes to comply with federal anti-discrimination laws, allow the Sikhs to reapply for work, and submit progress reports to the EEOC for the next two years. 

While there have been legal challenges to the use of hair testing for employment drug screening, the precision of the method and the safety benefits that rigorous screening can bring to the transportation sector make the technique worth investigating by trucking carriers. Carriers who want to implement hair testing need to make sure that the company they contract with uses a rigorous wash process that has been peer-reviewed and scientifically vetted—otherwise they may find themselves vulnerable to wrongful termination lawsuits stemming from false positives. Carriers also need to be flexible with Sikhs and other religious minorities who have special requirements: a 90 day cycle of random urinalysis is a sufficient proxy for hair testing. As long as carriers do their due diligence and vet their drug screening vendors, and educate their hiring departments on anti-discrimination law, they should be able to successfully implement hair testing and establish a truly drug-free workplace. 

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John Paul Hampstead, Associate Editor

John Paul writes about current events and economics, especially politics, finance, and commodities, and holds a Ph.D. in English literature from the University of Michigan. In previous lives John Paul studied Shakespeare in London and Buddhism in India, but now he focuses on transportation and logistics in the heart of Freight Alley--Chattanooga. He spends his free time with his wife and daughter herding cats, collecting books, and walking alongside the Tennessee River.

One Comment

  1. Testing hair folic "crazy", you think their a driver shortage now! Implement this type testing and you will see an even bigger decline in drivers.
    "Were not in Brazil"

  2. Tesla is going to win big on this. Drivers can already abandon a rig on the side of the interstate and have a driver have a new job in a week with a competitor.Its already hard to get people to take a driver job as it is. Especially as Cannabis becomes legal in more and more states. What do the carriers really think they have to gain from this? Maybe the point is to make autonomous remotely piloted tractors mandatory. Evidently they don’t want any drivers working for them.

  3. The intent should be to find out if they are under the influence not what their lifestyle is that is not the way it was originally set up but companies have abused the drug testing program so much that now they believe it is their right to police a lifestyle. The direction it should be moving toward is using test that show impairment or current influence especially considering all the talk about legalizing marijuana at the federal level.

  4. The last sentence says it all a truly drug free workplace with an emphasis on work place.