AGC Winter 2018 Beacon


Alternative drug testing methods widen scope, detection

By Adam Hall, C-SAPA
Beacon Occupational Health and Safety Services Inc.

Drug testing is a staple in the workplace for many companies, whether they are adhering to federal requirements, state laws, contractual requirements or company policy. In fact, many of the drug testing processes in place today stem from the Department of Transportation and the rules and regulations set in place by this federal organization. Many companies operating in Alaska and the rest of the United States employ DOT or safety-sensitive individuals. Although there are few exceptions depending on the DOT agency, urine testing is still the only approved method of testing for DOT employees. However, companies may also include non-DOT employees that are still expected to participate in some form of a drug testing program. This group of employees may be subjected to alternative specimen testing.

Alternative specimen testing comes in a variety of forms. Testing options include common ones such as hair and saliva, along with less popular methods such as blood, fingernail and sweat testing. With these options, employers can extend a laboratory testing panel to include more substances than a standard five-panel drug screen. This may occur because of contractual or policy requirements, and these requirements can extend to cover all employees, including those that are already covered by DOT policies. In the workplace, hair and saliva testing are the most common forms of alternative specimen testing. Each of these methodologies has grown in popularity over recent years as laws have changed in many states.

Hair testing

Hair testing is widely used in workplace drug testing today because it offers employers a more extensive look into an employee’s possible drug use history. The approximate window of detection for a head hair sample is about 60 to 90 days, whereas a body hair sample can show six to 12 months; however, these detection periods are influenced by an individual’s hair growth rate. Hair testing is considered less invasive than urine testing because the process does not depend on a donor’s ability to produce a sample within a narrow length of time.

The process begins with determining from where the hair will be collected. Head hair and body hair are both acceptable. A collector’s main goal with hair collection is to avoid leaving a noticeable cosmetic difference on a donor. If a donor’s head hair is insufficient for a sample, then the collector will attempt to remove body hair to complete the test. At times, a hair test cannot be completed due to an overall lack of head and body hair. This could be caused by a donor’s inability to grow hair or by a donor purposely trimming their hair to avoid submitting a sample. In this scenario, an employer must defer to their policy to determine next steps. Once a hair sample is sent to the lab, it is first screened using an Enzyme-Linked Immunosorbent Assay test. If a substance is detected at this phase, then confirmation testing using gas chromatography/mass spectrometry is implemented. This method of confirmation testing is identical to confirmation testing with urine samples. Prior to conducting a confirmation test, the hair sample is washed to remove possible external contamination. Currently, there are no known products that have been proven to successfully adulterate a hair sample.

Saliva testing

Like with hair testing, saliva testing is becoming more popular in the workplace. In addition to offering extended panel options, saliva testing is even less invasive than hair and urine testing and is virtually impossible to adulterate. As more states are adopting legal marijuana laws, many employers are turning to saliva testing due to the shortened window of detection. While saliva testing does not have a direct correlation to impairment, this shortened window is preferred by some companies. Most substances found on a standard saliva panel will have a window of detection of approximately 12 to 36 hours. For example, the window of detection for marijuana on a saliva test is approximately 24 to 48 hours.

Different types of saliva testing devices exist, but testing process remains the same. The donor is given a dry swab to hold in their mouth for a set amount of time, usually dictated by the manufacturer. Once the desired level of saturation is achieved, the sample is bottled, much like a urine sample, and shipped to lab. Once a sample arrives at the lab, the screen phase of testing is completed using enzyme immunoassay technology. If confirmation testing is warranted because a substance is detected, the confirmation method used is liquid chromatography/mass spectrometry/mass spectrometry. While slightly different than hair testing, this is still an accepted method to confirm a result.

Understanding alternative methods of drug testing is important for any employer prior to adopting an alternative drug testing method program. While various options exist, hair and saliva testing are the most common forms other than urine testing. Depending on the type of workforce a company employs, one or more of these options may be applicable. Cost is often considered when making these decisions. Today, the average cost of a hair test is slightly higher than a standard urine test, whereas saliva testing is comparable to a urine test. Knowing the method of testing your company needs is the first step in benefitting from alternative method drug testing.