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Positive drug tests increase for drivers

truck driver

Rising drug positivity rates among truck drivers  and other transportation workers are raising safety concerns.

And while some other employers are relaxing drug policies in response to the shifting social and legal landscape on cannabis and a nationwide labor shortage, the transportation industry can’t do that, because the U.S. Department of Transportation requires companies to test those who drive for a living.

For those working in the transportation industry, the 2021 drug positivity rate was 2.2%, higher than in 2017, and in line with an overall rise in positive drug tests for all workers, according to data released in March by Quest Diagnostics Inc., which provides drug screening for employers nationwide.

For those in safety sensitive positions, pre-employment positivity increased 9.5% from 2017 to 2021, while post-accident positivity increased 41.9%.  In 2021,​ post-accident positivity was higher when compared with pre-employment positivity, according to Barry Sample, Seneca, South Carolina-based senior science consultant for Quest Diagnostics. He called the findings “of concern” for a federally mandated, safety-sensitive workforce, most of which he says are those in the trucking industry.

“What is a little bit novel is looking at marijuana and cocaine,” he said, stating that in the case of marijuana, the positivity rates on post-accident versus pre-employment was just under a 4% difference — meaning drivers are possibly testing negative in pre-employment but positive post-accident. 

The difference between post-accident positivity testing increasing at a greater rate than pre-employment testing was driven by higher positivity on post-accident tests for marijuana, cocaine and semi-synthetic opiates, Mr. Sample said.

“By 2021, that difference increased five-fold,” he said. “Correlation doesn’t equal causation, but it certainly raises, at least in my mind, a level of concern that somebody who uses these drugs is more likely to be involved in an accident and have higher positivity rates.”

Overall, after five years of steady declines for drivers, marijuana increased 8.9%, amphetamines increased 7.8%, and cocaine increased 5.0%. 

The Federal Motor Vehicle Carrier Safety Administration also reported a rise in positive drug tests. Its monthly Drug and Alcohol Clearinghouse report from February documented a rise in truck driver violations with CBD, marijuana and cocaine.

Since the Clearinghouse took effect in Jan. 2020, marijuana was increasingly the most prominently used substance, with 58,904 positive results, FMCSA reported. The surprise second — increasing in positivity in 2021 after five years of steady declines — was cocaine, with 16,218 positives. Meth accounted for the third highest cause of positive tests at 9,940. 

Since 2017, 10 states have legalized the recreational use of marijuana, bringing the total number to 18 states. 

“The increase in marijuana positivity is a concern,” said National Safety Council’s Katie Mueller, who is the Yukon, Oklahoma-based senior program manager of the organization’s impairment practice, especially given recent renewed efforts in Congress on legalization.

The U.S. House of Representatives has passed a bill to federally legalize marijuana, but the measure is expected to be challenged in the Senate. Medical marijuana, legal in 39 states and D.C., is also problematic because it gives workers the impression that they are cleared to use it with a medical card, experts say.

“We are seeing the trend of some employers choosing to either take marijuana out of their drug testing panel or not disqualifying individuals from having a positive marijuana result from employment,” she said. 

These practices outside of the safety-sensitive workforce could have implications for federally mandated employers in screening potential employees, Ms. Mueller said.

“We definitely want to understand the risks that can be caused by not knowing the background of an individual you may be putting into a safety-sensitive position,” she said.

Brian Hammer, Durant, Iowa-based safety advisor to the American Society of Safety Professionals and fleet consultant at Nationwide Mutual Insurance Company, said the FMCSA Drug and Alcohol Clearinghouse rules that took effect two years ago documenting positive drug tests have contributed to hiring challenges amid a major labor shortage in the trucking industry. 

Acceptance of marijuana use among the general population makes it harder to attract and retain workers in safety-sensitive functions, he said. 

“With the Clearinghouse, it’s pretty hard to hide a positive drug test — three years ago, that wasn’t the case,” Mr. Hammer said. “But today it is, and it makes it stricter for trucking companies to hire.”

On several fronts, the evolving methods, perceptions and rules on marijuana use and drug testing can be understandably confusing for workers, Mr. Hammer concedes.

To advise employers on these issues, Ms. Mueller said NSC has gathered perceptions from companies and found employees need more clarity on their company policy around marijuana use. 

“We encourage employers to establish those policies and communicate them clearly to their employees,” she said.

Trucking groups, drivers association clash over push to add hair testing

As employers grapple with the surge in both regulatory drug testing requirements and drug positivity rates in the federally regulated safety-sensitive workforce, there has been a push to expand drug testing modalities for truck drivers. 

The American Trucking Association, the Alliance for Driver Safety & Security and other trucking groups have proposed adding hair testing to the Federal Motor Vehicle Carrier Safety Administration program, aided by a proposed congressional mandate to “accelerate” this initiative within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. 

“Hair offers the advantage. While it may not be good for post-accident or reasonable suspicion tests, it is a very good test at detecting a pattern of repetitive use,” said Barry Sample, Seneca, South Carolina-based senior science consultant for Quest Diagnostics Inc.

“In many ways, it’s a lifestyle test,” he said, appropriate for pre-employment, return-to-duty, follow-up or random types of tests. “It doesn’t tell you what you did recently, but it certainly can help inform what somebody has a pattern of doing.”

Some trucking companies have already adopted this testing method, according to Mr. Sample, who said companies believe that testing detects and deters drug use by employees.

The Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, which represents small-business truckers and professional truck drivers and has over 150,000 members, opposes the proposition. In its response to a notice from the FMCSA on proposed guidelines for federal workplace drug testing programs, OOIDA opposed the addition of hair testing.

Todd Spencer, president and CEO of OOIDA said some of the key issues with hair testing include false-positive results for certain drugs and compromised results due to environmental conditions and variances in hair types. 

Mr. Spencer said the addition of hair testing to the mandatory guidelines would also burden truckers already overwhelmed with “volumes of regulations.”