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.
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.