Guidelines for Federal Workplace Drug Testing

Urine Test Strip

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Guidelines for drug testing of federal employees were first published by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) in 1988. The "Mandatory Guidelines for Federal Workplace Drug Testing Programs" have been revised several times since in 1994, 1997, 1998, 2004, 2008, and 2017.

Developed by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), the 50-page guidelines are aimed at standardizing drug testing policies and procedures for all federal employees in all federal agencies.

Major Changes Proposed

In 2004, SAMHSA proposed revisions to the guidelines. After public comment on the proposed changes, notice of the changes were published in November 2008 and went into effect in October 2010.

Those proposals brought about several significant changes to government policy:

  • Workplaces could do laboratory testing of hair, oral fluid, and sweat patch specimens in addition to urine specimens. Workplaces were allowed to test for the presence of marijuana, cocaine, phencyclidine, opiates (with a focus on morphine and heroin), and amphetamines [including methylenedioxyamphetamine (MDA) and methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA).]
  • The guidelines allowed for the use of on-site, point-of-collection test (POCT) devices to test urine and oral fluid.
  • Federal workplaces could use instrumented initial test facilities (IITFs) to quickly identify negative specimens.
  • The guidelines established training requirements for collectors, on-site testers, and medical review officers (MROs).

Those policies are still active, but the 2017 revisions put forth additional changes:

  • Federal agencies could collect an alternate specimen (e.g. oral fluid) when a donor couldn't provide enough urine for a urine sample.
  • Workplaces could test for additional substances, including oxycodone, oxymorphone, hydrocodone, and hydromorphone.
  • The lower pH cutoff for identifying tampered urine samples with was raised from 3 to 4. (The minimum pH for unadulterated urine is roughly 4.5 pH.)
  • The guidelines added requalification requirements for MROs.

Certification of Laboratories

Also, the guidelines establish the scientific and technical rules for federal workplace drug testing programs and establish standards for certification of laboratories engaged in drug testing for federal agencies.

The revisions to the mandatory guidelines address the collection and testing of urine specimens, the requirements for certification of instrumented initial test facilities (IITFs), and the role of and standards for collectors and medical review officers (MROs).

Defining the Requirements for Testing

Specifically, the guidelines define the requirements for:

  • Specimen collection procedures
  • Custody and control procedures that ensure donor specimen identity and integrity
  • Initial and confirmatory test cutoff concentrations
  • Analytical testing methods
  • Result review and reporting
  • Evaluation of alternative medical explanations for positive tests
  • Laboratory certification

Combating Drug-Test Tricks

The use of additional specimen testing, other than urine, came after a pilot program started in April 2000 to prepare performance testing materials for specimens other than urine to evaluate the labs' ability to achieve accuracy and precision.

The addition of testing using hair, oral fluid, and sweat patch specimens to complement urine tests were proposed to combat industries devoted to "suborning urine drug testing through adulteration, substitution, and dilution," SAMSHA reported.

The agency also reported that hair testing, which can detect drug use in the past 90 days using the first 1.5 inches of hair, could be useful in pre-employment testing. Oral fluid testing could detect drug use in post-accident situations, and sweat patch testing could be useful in connection with follow-up drug testing and treatment programs.

Quick Results for Negative Tests

The addition of the use of POCT devices and IITFs would give government agencies quick results in identifying negative specimens, while also indicating that the specimen is valid, SAMHSA noted.

All federal agencies that conduct drug testing must follow the mandatory guidelines developed by SAMHSA, which includes having a medical review officer evaluate all test results and using a drug laboratory certified by the Department of Health and Human Services.

Private Employers Use Guidelines Too

Private employers who conduct drug testing of their employees are not required to follow SAMHSA's guidelines. However, adhering to the guidelines will help them stay on firm legal ground by using the federal procedures and by testing only for those drugs mentioned in the guidelines.

According to SAMHSA, court decisions have supported following the guidelines. Consequently, many employers choose to follow the federal guidelines in developing their own drug testing programs.

4 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Substance abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Mandatory guidelines for federal workplace drug testing programs. Fed Regist. 2008;73(228):71857-71907.

  2. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Mandatory guidelines for federal workplace drug testing programs. Fed Regist. 2017;82(13):7920-7970.

  3. Gryczynski J, Schwartz RP, Mitchell SG, O'Grady KE, Ondersma SJ. Hair drug testing results and self-reported drug use among primary care patients with moderate-risk illicit drug use. Drug Alcohol Depend. 2014;141:44-50. doi:10.1016/j.drugalcdep.2014.05.001

  4. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Federal laws and regulations.

By Buddy T
Buddy T is an anonymous writer and founding member of the Online Al-Anon Outreach Committee with decades of experience writing about alcoholism.