Hiring new employees is a challenging, time-consuming process, and it’s further complicated by the possibility that candidates may be impaired by drug use. To help mitigate the risk of hiring drug users and to increase workplace safety and productivity, many employers adopt drug screening programs. Hair and urinalysis drug testing are two of the most common forms of screening. Knowing which method to choose can be confusing for companies who want to ensure they’re making the best decision for their organization.
Time windows for detection, cost, and the ability to alter or substitute samples are among the leading differences between the two methodologies. Different scenarios call for different test types, so doing a thorough comparison is critical to ensure the chosen program serves its purpose.
Urinalysis testing became popular in the late 1980’s and has since become the leading choice for drug testing. Many employers are familiar with this type of testing, and it’s a value option given its cost relative to its effectiveness as a deterrent to drug use. Urinalysis testing has a proven track record of dependability and is approved for federal testing, including with the Department of Transportation (DOT). Several applicable situations for using this form of testing include pre-employment, random testing, post-accident and cause/suspicion because of its ability to reveal current or very recent drug use. Drug use within 10 days of testing can be detected using this method.
Although highly effective, there are a few drawbacks to urinalysis testing that require some consideration. This type of testing method can be viewed as invasive or embarrassing, and has a limited detection period that cannot measure frequency of drug use or the severity of impairment. This type of testing is also easier to cheat. Drug abusers over the years have gone to great lengths to manipulate specimens through adulteration (placing something in the urine to subvert detection), dilution (drinking lots of water over a short period of time), and substitution (replacing urine samples with clean ones).
In comparison, hair testing is non-invasive and is 100% observed, making the collection process more comfortable for the donor. Hair testing is also difficult to adulterate, the specimens don’t deteriorate, and since there’s no need for specimens to be refrigerated, shipping and storage are much simpler. The detection window for hair testing is long, typically up to 90 days, providing the best results for indicating habitual drug users. And when compared to urinalysis testing in the same groups of employees, hair testing has been found to result in 6.8% more drug-positive results.
When it comes to pre-employment and random testing, hair collections are a powerful deterrent. Potential employees with substance abuse problems may abstain from using drugs for a few days to prepare for an upcoming urinalysis drug test, but abstaining from drug use for the entirety of hair testing’s extended detection window becomes difficult for repeat users.
Though hair testing has benefits, there are also drawbacks. It is a more expensive option with longer turnaround times, and it may not fit into employer budgets or timeframes. Furthermore, challenges may arise if a donor has shaved or doesn’t have head or body hair, or has only used drugs recently. Although hair tests have a longer detection window, drug use within one to seven days of testing may not be detected.
Evaluating the pros and cons of each testing type doesn’t always determine a better choice or an obvious right option. Each collection method serves a purpose, but the combination of the two is a great way to increase safety and security. Employers who choose to test for both hair and urine do so to make their employee screening programs stronger and their worksites safer. DISA offers both methods of testing and can help advise potential clients on what’s right for their individual business needs.