Detecting Drug Use at Work via Hair Testing

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Creating a safe, drug-free working environment is the ultimate goal in any workplace.

Drug testing is one action an employer can take to determine if employees or job applicants are using drugs.  It can identify evidence of recent use of alcohol, prescription drugs, and illicit drugs. 

Currently, drug testing does not test for impairment or whether a person’s behavior is, or was, impacted by drugs.

The most common method of drug testing, urinalysis, can be done at the workplace (at a health unit, for example), a doctor’s office, or any other site selected by the employer. 

An employee or applicant provides a sample to be tested.  Usually, precautions are taken, such as putting blue dye in the toilet and turning off the water supply, to prevent adulteration or substitution of specimens so that collection can be completed in privacy without any direct visual observation by another person.

However, urinalysis can only detect prohibited drug use, from marijuana to cocaine to opiates, in about a four-day window, though, and doesn’t provide any indication as to what that employee was up to a week or even a month earlier.

Drug abusers were finding ways to evade detection, which is nearly impossible to do via hair testing.

According to Healthline, a hair follicle drug test, also known as a hair drug test, screens for illicit drug use and the misuse of prescription medication. During this test, a small amount of hair is removed from your head using scissors.

The sample is then analyzed for signs of drug use during the 90 days preceding the test. It’s typically used to test for:

While a urine drug screen can detect if you’ve used drugs in the last few days, a hair follicle drug test can detect drug use in the past 90 days.

According to Charles Doucot, executive vice president at Psychmedics, which pioneered the first commercially-available hair drug testing analysis in 1986, “When somebody takes drugs and ingest them in their system, those drugs are metabolized into a person’s bloodstream”, adding, “These metabolites find their way into the hair, where they become trapped.”

Doucot called hair the body’s “tape recorder” because it logs “how much drugs you’ve taken and when you’ve taken it.” Detection in hair can extend up to 90 days.

This drug-testing protocol has become prevalent in the transportation industry.

Maverick Transportation has implemented hair testing since 2012 and can attest to the efficacy. In 10,000 drug tests, they have received 324 positives from hair testing versus 18 with urinalysis.

One of the nation’s largest fleets, U.S. Xpress, also shared data from its hair-testing program, which began in 2018. Through July 2020, the rate for positive urinalysis was 0.9 and 8.5 for hair tests.

Certain medications may influence the results of the test. If a doctor has prescribed an opioid painkiller and you use them as directed, these drugs will show up on your test.

In this case, your employer will likely request you provide documentation of prescriptions.

If you believe your hair drug test results are inaccurate, you may immediately request a retest from your employer.