by Chris Bahn
Posted 6/24/2013 12:00 am
Updated 10 months ago
Positive results for drug use have kept more than 3,200 prospective drivers — including 1,700 who used cocaine and 71 who used cocaine in combination with opiates, heroin or amphetamines — from getting behind the wheel for J.B. Hunt Transport Services Inc. since May 2006.
While the pre-employment drug screening results might have kept those drivers off the J.B. Hunt payroll, they were not prohibited from climbing into the cab of an 18-wheeler elsewhere. All they had to do was find a company that does not use hair follicle testing and then abstain from drug use, depending on the substance, for as little as 24 hours.
Current government regulations in place stipulate that urinalysis remains the only universally accepted and sharable method of drug testing for transportation companies. While firms are free to supplement their pre-employment screening with a more stringent method like hair testing, they are not allowed to report the findings outside of their own human resources offices.
So it is entirely possible that the 3,221 drivers who failed J.B. Hunt’s drug tests since 2006 are on the road for somebody else. And only 90 of those users were flagged by the urine samples they submitted.
“We deny them employment, but these people are likely driving a truck for somebody else,” said Greer Woodruff, vice president of safety and security at J.B. Hunt. “… People with positive hair tests obviously do not need to be behind the wheel. These are the kind of people we screen out, and we think if more companies could do hair testing and share the results, we could move these people off the roads and out of commercial vehicles. Or they could go through some type of rehabilitation program. Right now they’re just moving to a different company.”
J.B. Hunt became the first major transportation company to incorporate hair testing seven years ago. Other companies have since followed suit, despite the additional costs and the fact that results cannot be shared with others in the industry.
Advocacy groups like the Arkansas Trucking Association, American Trucking Associations and the Trucking Alliance (both J.B. Hunt and North Little Rock’s Maverick belong) are pushing for either regulatory or legislative changes to rules that have been implemented by the Department of Transportation based upon guidelines set by Health & Human Services. Advocates would like to see legislation adopted that would allow companies their choice of testing options and then give them freedom to report their findings to others in the industry.
It is possible that legislation could be introduced in both houses of Congress this year to make hair follicle analysis an accepted standard for trucking companies. Lane Kidd, president of the Arkansas Trucking Association, said co-sponsors are being sought for legislation that will enact the change needed.
“It makes no sense from a safety standpoint why federal agencies — which have said we must reduce accidents involving truck drivers — wouldn’t recognize the method of drug testing that is most accurate and shows longest-term use of drugs,” said Kidd. “Trucking companies are not [only] interested in if you used drugs yesterday. They want to know if there’s a lifestyle of use.”
Hair testing’s success rate in identifying those lifestyle users is what makes that method superior, proponents say.
Follicle samples — usually collected by cutting or shaving an inch-and-a-half of hair — can detect drug use as far back as 90 days. Current methods of testing accepted by the DOT go back only about 48 hours.
Plus, urine tests can also be more easily altered, by substituting samples or the use of masking agents. Experts in the field say, for example, that heroin in the bloodstream can be masked in a urine test by the use of codeine. All that would be needed to explain a spike in codeine would be a prescription for cough medicine. There is no way to mask heroin use when a hair sample is taken.
Hair testing became the norm at J.B. Hunt in May 2006. It’s been an accepted practice in other industries for about 25 years, but only recently — and thanks to the success at J.B. Hunt — has it become more widespread among motor carriers.
Drug testing for drivers was mandated in 1989. That’s the year that the DOT — under the direction of Health & Human Services — instituted the collection of urine samples. Little has changed in the federal guidelines since then, and the DOT will not change its policies without the approval of HHS.
Officials at J.B. Hunt were moved to strengthen their drug policies beyond urinalysis after a pair of wrecks involving their drivers resulted in multiple fatalities. A post-accident screening — required by law anytime a motor carrier accident results in death — flagged both drivers for cocaine use.
That led to research on a more thorough method of testing. J.B. Hunt found it in hair follicle analysis.
From May 2006 through February 2013, the company said, it tested 64,814 drivers. Of those tests, more than 94 percent came back negative on both the hair and urine tests. Fewer than 5 percent came back positive on the hair test, but that sample still represents more than 3,000 drivers.
When it comes to the hiring of drivers and promoting a culture of safety, J.B. Hunt is hailed as an industry leader. What officials at the firm have noticed is that positive drug tests — either random or after an accident, which are both required by the DOT — have also declined.
Positives at J.B. Hunt during random testing of drivers have decreased dramatically.
“It changed the game,” Woodruff said. “Once we implemented hair testing, our DOT random urine rate declined 79 percent.”
Following J.B. Hunt’s Lead
Other companies have taken note of J.B. Hunt’s approach.
Maverick Transportation of North Little Rock began hair testing last August, according to Dean Newell, vice president of safety.
Newell, chairman of the American Trucking Associations’ National Safety Management Council, told the Arkansas Trucking Report that the first 468 hair tests conducted by Maverick resulted in 15 positives. None of those positives showed up in routine urinalysis.
Maverick, Newell said, was spurred to action by the success of J.B. Hunt’s safety policies.
“I don’t have the same story they have at J.B. Hunt, but I have the benefit of seeing their numbers and the impact that hair testing has made,” Newell said. “I saw their numbers and it was like, ‘Wow!’ We just felt like it was the right thing to do. So we bit the bullet and we’re doing it.”
Newell alludes to the one major concern that motor carriers have when it comes to hair testing. Since it is not a universally recognized test, they are voluntarily adding expenses on top of the cost of urinalysis.
A recent article in the Arkansas Trucking Report explained that hair testing could run in the neighborhood of $90 per sample. It costs twice as much as the price of a standard urine test, which runs about $45.
In other words, J.B. Hunt has likely spent almost $6 million more than required on hair testing since May 2006.
If hair testing can become a voluntary and accepted means of testing, that could cut down significantly on the cost to companies like J.B. Hunt and Maverick Transportation. That is the goal of the American Trucking Associations in Washington, D.C., the largest national trade organization for the trucking industry.
Abigail Potter, a research analyst for the ATA, said the group is working to increase support for federal recognition of hair testing.
“We want to have hair tests as an option,” Potter said. “We want companies to be able to replace the urine tests for pre-employment screening if they choose to do so. … We also want people to be able to share that pre-employment information with other carriers. Carriers that [test hair] are legally not allowed to share that information with other motor carriers. We understand it’s more expensive, but they should have the option.”
Until federal regulations change or legislation is approved to allow for voluntary hair testing, the extra expense is worth it, Woodruff said. There are no numbers available to illustrate what J.B. Hunt has saved by implementing hair testing, but the decrease in positive results from current drivers tested randomly or post-accidents suggest that the money is being well spent, Woodruff said.
“We believe there is a good business case,” Woodruff said. “But there is a moral obligation to try to keep drug users from behind the wheel.”
The Extra Mile
Trucking companies are required to do urinalysis only when administering pre-employment drug screening. Below is a look at what the five largest Arkansas trucking firms do.
|Company||No. of Trucks||Urinalysis||Hair Testing|
|J.B. Hunt Transport Services Inc.||9,160||Yes||Yes|
|ABF Freight System Inc.||3,900||Yes||NA|
|P.A.M. Transport Inc.||1,800||Yes||NA|
|USA Truck Inc.||2,184||Yes||Yes*|
|Maverick Transport Inc.||1,432||Yes||Yes|
*USA Truck recently implemented a pilot program for hair follicle testing
J.B. Hunt Transport Inc. uses hair follicle testing in addition to urinalysis for pre-employment drug screening. Between May 2006 and February 2013 the Lowell trucking and transportation firm reports 64,814 potential drivers tested.
Below is a look at the 3,221 who failed/refused the hair testing and what substances were flagged in their system by the hair tests. Only 90 of those were flagged as failed or refused the urinalysis. Proponents use this data to illustrate the need for the federal government to allow hair testing.
|Cocaine, marijuana, opiates||4|
|Amphetamine, cocaine, marijuana||1|
|MDMA, cocaine, marijuana||1|
J.B. Hunt tested 64,814 potential drivers between May 2006 and February 2013, with the following results:
|Negative on Both Tests||61,034||(94.17%)|
|Positive/Refuse Both Tests||469||(0.72%)|
|Positive/Refuse Urine Only||90||(0.14%)|
|Positive/Refuse Hair Only||3,221||(4.97%)|