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Government to broaden drug testing of workers

Methods to include scrutiny of hair, saliva and sweat

SHARE Government to broaden drug testing of workers

NEW YORK — The federal government is preparing to overhaul drug testing of its employees to include scrutiny of workers' hair, saliva and sweat, a shift that could spur more businesses to revise screening for millions of their own workers.

The planned changes, long awaited by the testing industry, reflects government efforts to be more precise in its drug screening and to outmaneuver a small but growing subset of workers who try to cheat on urine-based tests.

Some private employers have already adopted alternative testing methods, although others have held back, some awaiting government standards.

Alternative testing methods would give employers more certainty about the timing and scope of drug usage than is now possible solely with urine sampling, said Robert Stephenson II, an official with the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

He said it would likely be a year until the new policies take effect for the nation's 1.6 million federal workers. The agency, known as SAMHSA, sets guidelines and administers the testing.

All federal workers are eligible to be tested. SAMHSA, a division of the Department of Health and Human Services, actually tests fewer than 200,000 workers a year. The decision about who is tested often depends on the sensitivity of their work.

But because its standards are followed by regulatory agencies who conduct testing in industries they oversee, SAMHSA is responsible for about 6.5 million of the 40 million workplace drug tests done each year by U.S. employers.

The agency's testing standards are also widely followed by thousands of other employers, public and private.

Alternative testing will "really ramp up our ability to increase the deterrent value of our program, which is basically the whole bottom line," said Stephenson, director of the agency's Division of Workplace Programs.

The proposals are due out "literally any day," he said. Stephenson would not discuss details of the proposals before their release.

Changes would not be likely to go into effect until early next year, after the agency has a chance to solicit public comment, finalize its guidelines and prepare for the transition in its testing program. Once that happens, many other employers could follow suit, government and industry officials say.