The epidemic of prescription painkiller abuse is causing a revision in mandatory drug testing of employees in regulated industries. Included in this change, the Federal Department of Transportation (DOT) has recently issued revised regulations that add 4 semi-synthetic opioids to the drug-testing panel, effective on January 1, 2018.
Time is of the essence for employers to revise their drug-testing protocols.
These changes follow the established policy to harmonize DOT rules with those issued by the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) for its Mandatory Guidelines for Federal Workplace Testing. The HHS rules were issued October 1, 2017 under a Final Rule adopted in January 2017. It is reasonable to conclude that these protocols should be reviewed and possibly adopted by employers with significant drug-testing programs, even if they are not under a mandate to do so.
Which Drugs are Added?
The added drugs, which can be legally prescribed by physicians, include hydrocodone, hydromorphone, oxycodone, and oxymorphone, which are often referred to by brand names like Vicodin, OxyContin, and Percocet, among others. These drugs are Schedule 2 drugs, meaning that they may be addictive and are subject to abuse. Note that the powerful synthetic fentanyl, responsible for so many street deaths, is not (yet) on the list, possibly because it is used as a heroin substitute rather than as a painkiller.
In addition to the semi-synthetic opioids, DOT is adding methylenedioxyamphetamine (MDA) to the panel as an initial test analyte, and removing methylenedioxyethylamphetamine (MDEA) as a confirmatory test analyte.
In its original background research to shape and justify changes in drug-testing rules, HHS concluded that the semi-synthetic opioids included were abused frequently enough that they should be part of testing. The National Safety Council argues that painkillers are being overprescribed, but adds that 70% of people who take these pills get them from friends or relatives who may not even know that providing these drugs is a felony.
However, because the drugs might be prescribed for legitimate medical conditions, the regulations continue to allow employees to submit medical explanations for adverse test results to a Medical Review Officer (MRO). MROs must review explanations and submit opinions within 5 business days.
Do DOT Rules Apply to Your Business?
The aim of DOT rules is to ensure that employees working in air, ground, or marine transport industries, and including some agencies of the Federal Government such as the Coast Guard, are properly tested for drugs that can impair judgment and performance. Employers must establish compliant testing programs if they are in industries regulated by DOT agencies. Including but not limited to the Federal Aviation Administration, the Federal Railroad Administration, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, the Federal Transit Administration, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, and for drug testing, the US Coast Guard.
Drug testing is a crucial part of background screening for applicants in regulated industries, and is also critical as part of a regular testing regime for employees. The safety risks are too great to allow impaired pilots, drivers, or conveyance operators behind the wheel.