As published by Keith Laing in The Hill
Unions mobilize against hair drug testing for truck drivers
The AFL-CIO’s Transportation Trades Department (TTD) is trying to clip a proposal to test truck drivers’ hair for traces of drugs instead of checking their urine.
Supporters of the proposal, which is included in a highway bill that was passed in July by the Senate, say the tests are harder to beat than traditional tests for illicit items because signs of drugs last longer in hair follicles than in urine.
TTD President Edward Wytkind said hair drug testing is less reliable than urine samples, however.
“This system has been applied to urine testing and since 1991, urine samples have been used as the reliable standard for drug testing drivers,” he continued. “By stark contrast, [Health and Human Services] has not approved hair specimen for use in drug tests, and no HHS-issued technical standards for hair testing exist — and for good reason. Hair testing is not ready for primetime.”
Hair testing involves comparing testing a follicle of hair for signs of drugs within a window of about 90 days. Traditional urine testing typically only captures drug use within period of a couple of weeks.
Critics have suggested the hair drug testing is unproven and could discriminate against minorities who typically have coarser follicles.
“A bus driver who provides hair for a drug test could test positive for drugs she or he never actually took,” Wytkind wrote.
“You see, hair absorbs substances that people come into contact with through the environment and labs performing hair tests are currently incapable of distinguishing between drugs that drivers are exposed to and those which they actually ingested,” he continued. “Yes, you read that right. This kind of testing, which can’t actually determine how hair was contaminated, has the ability to put the livelihoods of thousands of responsible, hardworking men and women at risk.”
Wytkind added that moving to hair drug testing could make it more likely for minority drivers to be banned from driving.
“Some drugs bond at greater rates to hair that is darker and more porous, leading to the serious concern that hair testing has an inherent racial bias,” he wrote.
“In fact, 10 African Americans brought a case alleging that the hair tests used by the Boston Police Department are racially discriminatory,” Wytkind continued. “The U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit found that these employees had proven ‘beyond reasonable dispute’ a prima facie case that the Police Department’s hair testing program was in fact discriminatory. The case is pending an appeal.”
The fight over hair testing is intensifying as both sides of the debate are seeking to get a leg up as the House considers a highway funding bill. The House is scheduled to mark up its version of the highway bill on Thursday, and lawmakers are expected to try to add a host of trucking-related amendments, including the hair drug testing proposal.
The American Trucking Association (ATA), which lobbies for trucking companies, is supporting the hair drug testing proposal, despite the complaints from unions.
“ATA is aware of thousands of truck drivers who have tested positive for illegal drug use on hair tests and have obtained driving positions with other carriers because they were subsequently able to pass DOT-required urine tests,” ATA President Bill Graves wrote in August letter to lawmakers.
“Several of these drivers have had crashes and, of course, future ones are likely as a result,” Graves continued in the letter. “If the labor organizations opposed to the legislation had their way, these individuals would be driving tractor-trailers.
Wytkind countered this week that lawmakers and truck companies should heed the warnings of regulators and scientists who have said that urine testing is a more reliable method for checking drivers for drug use.
“We all agree that maintaining a drug-free workforce is critically important to keeping our transportation system as safe as possible,” he wrote. “But testing hardworking drivers using an unproven, unscientific and potentially biased measure won’t fulfill that goal. When it comes to drug testing commercial motor vehicle drivers, Congress and industry leaders should stick with what works and stop challenging good science.”