Hair Drug Testing – Your Past Substance Use Is All “Locked” Up

Drug testing using hair specimens is becoming more common in the workplace.  Formally called “hair follicle drug testing”, there is a misconception on how the sample is collected.  Hair is not plucked from the head to get to the root, or follicle.  Drugs enter through the hair follicle, the only “live” part of the hair.  As the hair grows out, substances of abuse remain in each strand. 

The hair is actually cut close to the scalp by a certified collector.  The standard hair drug test is for a 90 day period, though longer testing periods are possible depending on the length of a person’s hair. Since hair grows at a rate of ½” per 30 days, 1 ½” of hair, about the circumference of a pencil eraser, is cut from the head for a 90 day test.

So, why is hair drug testing a better investment for employers, especially those with higher risk and safety environments? History.  Urine has been the standard specimen collected for drug testing purposes for many years.  The problem with a urine drug test is the detection period.  Depending on how often a person may use drugs, the detection period can be anywhere between 3 to 10 days.  Unfortunately, employers have a tendency of giving pre-employment candidates a few days’ notice of a pending drug test, or schedule random drug tests during the same week every month.  The “experienced” drug users know how to get around the system – they plan, stop taking drugs for a few days, and even try methods of adulteration such as dilution or sneaking a drop of bleach into the testing facility.  Combine street knowledge with detection time, and an employer may not know the real story behind their job candidate.

Hair testing offers a snapshot of a candidate’s or employee’s more common social and/or abusive behavior.  Hair is extremely difficult to adulterate; therefore, a true picture of a person’s usual drug use pattern is more apparent.  In fact, hair can be segmented into 30 day periods at the request of the employer or client, offering an even greater glimpse of a donor’s history.  Another benefit to hair testing is the collection time, approximately 10 – 15 minutes.  An employer desires to get an employee back on the job quickly.  There are people who have trouble urinating upon request; therefore, they sit in the collection site for long periods of time, drinking water in an effort to complete their test.  It is not the same with hair collections.

What’s the downside?  Employers’ immediate response is “cost”.  Yes, the cost to test hair specimens is more than a urine sample.  However, random testing can be reduced since detection covers a 90-day period.  In addition, since so much planning goes into passing a urine drug test by astute substance abusers, an employer may not know they have a problem on their hands until it is too late.  How long does it take to handle internal problems, document the issues, then finally move to termination?  What if an accident occurred on-the-job and it was found the employee was under the influence?  Can an employer afford lost customers and a poor image due to the actions of an employee that might be under the influence of drugs though based on his or her past test results, may not be the immediate suspected cause?

It would be quite a challenge and probably wishful thinking that substance abuse could be completely eradicated in the workplace, given that nearly 1 in every 20 people use drugs; however, alternative testing specimens and program solutions can further reduce safety and risk factors, while improving a company’s overall health and well-being.


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