Hair testing is an excellent way to deter employees

Innovative Technology Helps Combat Drug Use

For employers, especially those with workers in safety-sensitive positions, it is critical to identify illicit drug users.

Are you looking for new ideas to improve safety? Are you seeking different results than you got last year?

As business costs continue to rise and workplace safety and health become more important than ever, organizations are looking for new techniques and programs that will have an impact on these growing concerns. Implementing an effective drug testing program is one way that organizations can control risk and reduce the costs attributed to injury and illness, insurance or workers' compensation, and disability leave.

Drug testing is a key component to protecting the welfare of all employees. Given the fact that drug users impact the productivity, quality, and morale of a workforce, many companies have turned to various drug testing programs as an investment and a way to reduce absenteeism, accident rates, workers’ compensation, and turnover costs while increasing productivity and employee morale.

You have probably seen the statistics: Did you know that an astounding 75 percent of drug users are employed, and the U.S. Department of Labor reports that drug abuse causes 65 percent of on-the-job accidents? You may even have a urinalysis testing program in place. But how effective is a urine test when it is often referred to as an "IQ" test?

To really make an impact on your workforce this year, consider exploring innovative technologies, such as hair testing. Hair analysis is a drug testing method that many companies now rely on to identify periodic and habitual drug use by applicants or employees, especially in safety-sensitive positions. The use of hair analysis has steadily increased in private sector workplace testing, and many Fortune 500 companies have been exclusively using hair for pre-employment testing for more than a decade.

Advantages of Hair Testing
Though it may be a new concept to some, the use of hair testing for drugs of abuse was pioneered by Psychemedics Corporation more than 25 years ago. One of the distinct advantages of hair testing is the wider window of detection that it offers over alternative drug testing methods. The typical hair sample (1.5 inches cut close to the scalp) identifies drug use as far as three months back, as opposed to urinalysis, which typically detects drug use from the past 48 to 72 hours.

Most of the commonly abused drugs are rapidly excreted from the fluids of the body (blood, saliva, and urine), and this leads to a very short drug detection window. In contrast, hair acts like a tape recorder, trapping drug ingestions over time as the hair grows, and thereby providing a much longer detection period. A hair sample’s wider window of detection is a distinct advantage for employers looking to identify applicants or employees who are repeat drug users.

Hair testing is also effective because it is extremely difficult to adulterate, or tamper with, when compared to a urine test, as the entire collection process is observed. The collection and handling process is simple and easy to do because there is no handling of bodily fluids. It is important to note that while illicit drug users can abstain from drug use in the days leading up to a traditional urine drug test in an effort to "beat" the test, the approximately three-month window of detection offered by hair testing makes it very difficult to hide previous repeat drug use. Hair samples, which are not a biohazard, also can be shipped from anywhere in the world without the risk of deterioration during transit. Another advantage of the FDA-cleared screen test is that it not only detects drug use, but also can provide information on the quantity and historic pattern of individual drug use.

For employers, especially those with workers in safety-sensitive positions, it is critical to identify illicit drug users. Many employers consider hair testing to be the most effective and stringent method for creating a drug-free workplace, especially considering that the risk of loss associated with an employee under the influence of drugs often extends beyond the health and safety of the employees and into the surrounding community.

The Testing Process
The test involves using scissors to snip a cosmetically undetectable sample of head hair that is about the diameter of a pencil's lead. The typical hair sample is about one and a half inches long and idntifies drug use approximately three months back (each half inch section of hair equals approximately one month of history). If head hair is sparse or unavailable, body hair may be collected instead. This process is considered a less intrusive alternative to urine or blood testing.

The sample is placed in a sealed specimen envelope in front of the donor and shipped with custody and control documentation to the laboratory. We use an extensive wash protocol to remove possible external drug contamination, a process recently validated by the FBI. A complex chemical process which is patented by us is used to release virtually all of the drugs deposited in the hair, a step that is critical to accurately quantifying the drugs in the hair and identify the users.

The standard turnaround time for the test results is within 24 hours of receipt of the sample for negatives and an additional 3-5 days for positive results.

Drugs Identified
The five drugs of abuse groups analyzed in a hair test include cocaine; opiates (including heroin metabolite 6-MAM, morphine, oxycodone, hydrocodone, hydromorphone and codeine); phencyclidine (PCP); amphetamines (including methamphetamine, amphetamine, MDMA-Ecstasy, MDEA-Eve, and MDA); and marijuana (carboxy-THC). These groups encompass some of the most-abused prescription drugs, such as oxycodone (e.g., Oxycontin®, Percocet®, Percodan®, Roxicodone®), hydrocodone (Vicodin®, Lorcet®, Lortab®), and hydromorphone (Dilaudid®). Prescription drug abuse is the nation’s fastest-growing drug problem and can have dangerous consequences in the workplace.

In fact, one study found that workers who were tested following a workplace accident were four times more likely to have opiates in their system than workers who were tested before being hired.1

Astounding Results

  • Food company: When one of North America's leading food companies' safety team was charged with the duty of reducing workforce injuries, they concluded that reducing drug users in the workforce was a natural step to take. After researching their current program and the other options available, they decided to switch from urine to hair testing to reinforce their commitment to safety.  Historically, with urine testing, this food company saw a 1.5 percent positive rate on pre-employment tests. After switching to hair testing, the positive rate for pre-employment tests jumped to 8.6 percent. By identifying drug users before they entered the workforce, they were able to improve the safety of their workforce and reduce the number of injuries that occurred.
  • Motor carrier: J.B. Hunt, a top transportation company, made the case for the use of hair testing by motor carriers through its own paired hair and urine analysis. From May 2006 to May 2014, the company performed a comparison of 70,935 paired hair and DOT urine tests on the same individuals. The results were astounding, with 3,923 (5.53 percent) testing positive with hair tests but only 578 (0.81 percent) testing positive with urinalysis. When J.B. Hunt initially implemented pre-employment hair testing, positive results on the hair tests started out near 15 percent. This number dropped significantly as it became widely known that J.B. Hunt performs hair testing during the drug screening process. The company's DOT random urine positive rate also dropped rapidly as identified drug users were removed from its fleet.
  • Manufacturing company: Steelcase administered both urine and hair analysis tests to 774 applicants in order to provide an effective side-by-side comparison. Hair and urine samples were collected on the same day from each applicant. For all of the drugs tested, hair testing was dramatically more effective in identifying drug use, yielding an 18 percent positive rate in comparison to a rate of 2.7 percent for urine. This demonstrated that 85 percent of the drug users identified by hair testing would have passed the urine test and entered the workforce.

Effectively Detect and Deter Drug Users
While hair testing is not a new concept in corporate America, it is an innovative technology to consider if you are really looking to make a positive impact on workplace safety and health. Thousands of organizations in more than 30 countries currently rely on this technology (including more than 10 percent of Fortune 500 companies), in addition to major police forces, courts, schools, and parents.

Because of the significant advantages it offers, the use of hair testing will only continue to increase. Changing the testing method to hair offers organizations an effective way to reduce overall costs and maintain a safe work environment.


This article originally appeared in the February 2015 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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