WASHINGTON — The hair, saliva and sweat of federal workers could be tested for drug use under a government policy proposed Tuesday that could set screening standards for millions of private employers.
The proposal will expand the methods to detect drug use among 1.6 million federal workers beyond urine samples. It is being implemented with an eye toward the private sector, however, because it would signal the government’s approval for such testing, which many companies are awaiting before adopting their own screening programs.
The rule is subject to a 90-day public comment period. A final plan could be issued by year’s end.
About 400,000 federal workers — such as those who have security clearances, carry firearms, are involved in national security or are presidential appointees — must undergo testing. Others are tested only if they show signs of drug use or are involved in a work-related accident.
“What we think is going to happen with the introduction of alternative specimens is, it’s going to make it much tougher for individuals to be able to adequately prepare and to avoid detection,” said Robert Stephenson, director of the workplace programs division in the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
However, the number of federal workers that attempt to defraud urine tests already is “virtually zero,” Stephenson said. The positive rate for federal workers has fallen to less than 0.5 percent, from 18 percent early in the program, which began in 1986 when President Reagan issued an executive order declaring that the federal work force must be drug-free.
“We expect other interested parties to use the same standards and benefit from the quality assurance procedures and certification of laboratories and products that we are in fact putting out there for federal employees,” Stephenson said. “We understand that it is a broader mission.”
About 95 percent of the government’s testing is conducted by private companies, he said.
The testing industry was involved in creating the plan, but unions representing federal employees were not. The National Treasury Employees Union, with members in 29 agencies, has opposed sweat tests, claiming scientific studies have shown they are unreliable.
“One of things we would want to look at closely … is the issue of how reliable and accurate these new tests will be, and to ensure that federal employees will not suffer from a high degree of false positives or other scientific shortfalls,” said Colleen M. Kelley, the union’s president.
SAMHSA said the proposal is based on scientific evidence that hair, saliva and sweat specimens can be tested “with the same level of confidence that has been applied to the use of urine.” Agencies will not be required to use the tests.
The Drug and Alcohol Testing Industry Association, with about 1,200 members, has lobbied for the regulations since the mid-1990s, said Laura Shelton, executive director of the Alexandria, Va.-based group. The rules are expected to be a boon to the industry.
“It will greatly increase the use of them,” Shelton said, speaking of the alternative tests. “A lot of employers have been sitting in the back saying, ‘Well, these aren’t approved for federal testing, so maybe something is not quite right’ — even though there are studies out there showing they are effective.”
A survey by the American Management Association found that drug testing by employers is declining. About 68 percent of the companies responding to a 2001 survey said they conducted medical testing, down from 77 percent in 1998.
Tests can cost $20 to $50, with hair testing being the most expensive, Shelton said. Saliva and sweat tests cost only slightly more than urine tests.
Uniform standards for drug testing has been “sorely lacking,” said Los Angeles lawyer Anthony Oncidi, a partner in the labor and employment practice group of Proskauer Rose LLP.
The ease and accuracy of such tests, combined with the legal basis the government standards could provide employers who might be sued by workers, should expand the use of alternative testing, he said.
It would be “harder to poke a hole in it,” Oncidi said. “To the extent that it’s been accepted on the federal level for government workers, that’s a pretty good endorsement.”
Saliva testing, done using a swab that looks much like a toothbrush but with a pad instead of bristles, is best at detecting drug use within the past one or two days, experts said.
Hair testing, in which a sample about the thickness of a shoelace is clipped at the root from the back of the head, allows detection of many drugs used as far back as three months.
Sweat testing, in which workers are fitted with a patch that is worn for two weeks, is used to screen people who have returned to work after drug treatment.