DOT Adds Synthetic Opioids to Drug Testing Panel

By Susan Milner Parrott and Patrick Lawler

As of January 1, 2018, employers regulated by the federal Department of Transportation (DOT) must include certain synthetic opioids in their mandated drug testing policies and programs. DOT published a final rule on November 13, 2017 to amend its drug-testing program regulations to add four semi-synthetic opioids--hydrocodone, hydromorphone, oxycodone, and oxymorphone--to its drug-testing panel. Some common names for these semi-synthetic opioids include OxyContin, Percocet, Vicodin, Percodan, Lortab, Norco, Dilaudid, and Exalgo.

DOT-regulated employers include employers regulated by the Federal Aviation Administration, the Federal Railroad Administration, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, and, for purposes of drug testing only, the United States Coast Guard. Employees in safety-sensitive roles in transportation industries include pilots, bus drivers, truck drivers, train engineers, railroad conductors, and certain ship captains, among others. In general, DOT regulations require such employees to undergo urine testing to ensure that the employee is not under the influence of certain controlled substances.  For decades, DOT required that such employees be tested for five major types of substances: (1) marijuana, (2) cocaine, (3) phencyclidine (PCP), (4) amphetamines, and (5) certain opiates (heroin, morphine, and codeine).

According to DOT, adding the four semi-synthetic opioids to the drug-testing panel,

  • “harmonizes” DOT regulations with the revised Department of Health and Human Services Mandatory Guidelines for Federal Workplace Drug Testing Programs Using Urine and maintains required consistency with those guidelines, and
  • recognizes that “opioid abuse and related problems are a major national concern” that “can affect transportation safety.” 

Further, DOT stated that, “inclusion of these four semi-synthetic opioids is intended to help address the nation-wide epidemic of opioid abuse.” 

The four semi-synthetic opioids which transportation employers must test for starting January 1, 2018 are often legitimately prescribed by medical professionals. Because of the prevalence of legal and proper use of prescription opioids, under the DOT regulations, employees are permitted to provide evidence that any positive drug test result is due to a legally valid prescription. Neither employers nor the employers’ medical review officers may question whether the medical provider erred in prescribing the controlled substance.

In addition to expanding the scope of controlled substances that transportation industry employers must test for, the final rule also makes several technical changes to the drug testing regulations and clarifies certain definitions from earlier iterations of the regulations. 

Although many employers already test for the four semi-synthetic opioids, all employers regulated by DOT should ensure that their drug testing policies and programs comply with the revised regulation by January 1, 2018. 


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