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Carriers warn feds’ hair-testing plan may undercut drug clearinghouse

HHS proposal would also add unnecessary costs for trucking industry, according to commenters

FMCSA considering including hair test results in drug clearinghouse. (Photo: Jim Allen/FreightWaves)

The Trump administration’s plan for testing hair to screen truck drivers for drugs could weaken the effectiveness of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s (FMCSA) Drug & Alcohol Clearinghouse, according to those commenting on the proposal.

While sectors within the trucking industry do not all agree hair testing should be used to screen for drugs — the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association does not support the measure — many of those that do support it believe the guidelines proposed by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) in September are flawed.

The biggest problem, they contend, is the requirement that if a hair specimen gives a positive result, an alternative specimen — urine or saliva  — must also be collected, either simultaneously or when directed by a medical review officer (MRO). That requirement, according to carriers and others, undermines the purpose of hair testing.

“Hair testing is far more likely to detect controlled substances as compared to urinalysis,” commented Jeff Mercadante, vice president of safety for Pittsburgh-based carrier Pitt Ohio. “Under the proposed guidelines, carriers would be required to provide additional evidence in the event of a positive hair test such as the driver admitting to drug use or a second alternative specimen (urine or oral fluids). Carriers will be in a situation where a driver tests positive on the hair test but negative on the urinalysis.”

Maverick Transportation, which has been using hair testing as a pre employment measure since 2012, pointed out that using a less accurate urine or oral fluid test to validate what the company considers to be the most effective drug testing method “will cause a direct negative safety impact on our national highway systems.”

In addition, Maverick noted, “implementation of the HHS proposal does nothing to improve the Drug Clearinghouse. The HHS proposal would eliminate the introduction of additional drug users. Thus, the FMCSA Drug Clearinghouse will not become as effective and robust as it could, nor would the motoring public gain a greater enhancement in safety on our highways.”

Marshfield, Wisconsin-based Roehl Transport, which has also been using hair testing for pre employment screening, agreed that the current proposal would put the public at risk with a driver who tested positive via the hair test but negative through urinalysis. “We can also see plaintiff attorneys having a field day with this process both from an auto liability side and from an [Equal Employment Opportunity Commission] side,” the company stated.

Cost implications of the proposal would not be limited to potential liability issues but also would be incurred through the implementation of the proposal itself, according to Corporate Medical Services (CMS), a Chattanooga, Tennessee-based MRO.

“The logistics of collectors or labs keeping an authorized specimen for an undisclosed time period while they wait for the MRO to determine if the specimen is needed will bring a cost and complexity that the writers of the [proposal] do not understand,” CMS stated.

Hundreds of thousands of specimens per day may need to be shipped to two completely different laboratories, CMS stated, because some labs that test hair samples do not test for urine. “Millions of alternative authorized tests will be collected, shipped, identified, and eventually disposed for no reason whatsoever and will result in significant costs to companies.”

In addition to the cost and safety issues raised by the HHS proposal, many commenters also asked that positive hair test results — for those companies that use it in addition to urine and oral testing — be included in the Drug & Alcohol Clearinghouse.

The FMCSA confirmed earlier this year that it was considering such a move. “We’re looking very closely whether that [is] permitted and if not, ought it be permitted,” said former FMCSA Deputy Administrator Jim Mullen at the Truckload Carriers Association Virtual Safety and Security Meeting.

Comments on the HHS proposal are due on or before Nov. 9.

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John Gallagher

Based in Washington, D.C., John specializes in regulation and legislation affecting all sectors of freight transportation. He has covered rail, trucking and maritime issues since 1993 for a variety of publications based in the U.S. and the U.K. John began business reporting in 1993 at Broadcasting & Cable Magazine. He graduated from Florida State University majoring in English and business.