DOT Drug Test vs Non-DOT Drug Test: The Comprehensive Guide

DOT Drug Test vs Non-DOT Drug Test: The Comprehensive Guide


The drug tests administered in workplace will fall into two categories: those governed by the Department of Transportation (DOT)/Federally regulated and others (Non-DOT)/State regulated.

A DOT drug (or alcohol) test is a test done under DOT supervision in the safety sensitive industries ( learn more about safety sensitive industries and Who is required to take a DOT Drug test below) by a safety sensitive employee. 

Compare that to a non-DOT drug or alcohol test which is typically done under an employer’s authority. The employer can decide which employees they want to test and its typically done for pre-employment drug testing, random drug testing and post-accident drug testing.

A major difference is that DOT/Department of Transportation laws come under federal purview for their drug testing programs while Non-DOT laws vary by state and follows state-level regulations importantly the cutoff for violations and its consequences.


DOT Drug Screen

It is an US Government regulated drug screening test specifically for the Department of Transportation (DOT).  Omnibus Transportation Employee Testing Act was passed by the US Congress in 1991 when they realized the need for a drug and alcohol-free transportation industry.  The act demanded DOT agencies to enforce drug and alcohol testing of safety-sensitive employees to maintain the safety of the traveling public and workers.

How DOT tests are done?

The drug test procedure involves urine collection and testing to check for controlled substances.  The only approved specimen for drug testing is urine.  Alcohol test is performed using Evidential Breath Testing Devices such as breathalyzer machine.  Breath and saliva are approved specimens for alcohol testing.  All tests are nonintrusive.

Who is required to take DOT Drug Test?

DOT drug testing is mandatory for individuals and private corporations or any company associated with the Department of Transportation (DOT).  Employees working in safety-sensitive positions or unsafe environments are mandated by law to participate in a DOT Drug Testing Program (drug and alcohol testing).

Safety-sensitive positions in any of the occupations below require passing the DOT test.

  • Bus Drivers
  • Truck Drivers
  • Subway Operators
  • Train Engineers
  • Pilots and Aircraft Maintenance Crew
  • Ship Captains
  • Pipeline Controllers and Emergency Response Crew
  • Armed Security Personnel
  • Etc.

Government agencies associated with US Transportation covered under DOT:

  • Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration:  Commercial Driver’s License (CDL) holders like bus and truck drivers.
  • Federal Aviation Administration:  Flight crews, attendants and instructors, ground security personnel, aircraft maintenance personnel, aircraft dispatchers, air traffic controllers contracted by the U.S. military and non-FAA facilities.
  • Federal Railroad:  Engine and train workers, train dispatchers, signal service workers, etc.
  • Federal Transit Authority:  Mechanics, vehicle operators, armed security, controllers.
  • U.S. Coast Guard:  Ship captains, commercial vessel crew members.
  • Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration:  Pipeline controllers, operations and maintenance personnel, emergency response personnel.

What drugs are tested and prohibited under DOT Test?

DOT drug testing is conducted for both drugs and alcohol.  The standard 5-panel drug test is performed to identify specific drugs and their metabolites.  Alcohol test is performed using a breathalyzer machine.  Alcohol tests are the most popularly used drug prevention strategy for safety-sensitive employees.

DOT drug tests are performed to detect any of the following substances and metabolites:

  • Amphetamines (methamphetamine, MDA, MDMA, D-amphetamine)
  • Opioids/Opiates (oxycodone, oxymorphone, heroin, codeine, morphine, 6-MAM, hydrocodone)
  • Phencyclidine (PCP)
  • Marijuana/THC (cannabinoids)
  • Cocaine

When are DOT Drug Tests performed?

DOT drug tests are undertaken in the following situations:

  • Pre-Employment Testing:  New applicants and existing employees transferring to safety sensitive positions are subjected to drug test.  This will help in stopping drug users from entering the safety-sensitive workforce.  DOT requires employers to do pre-employment drug testing; however, alcohol testing is optional.
  • Random Drug Testing:  It is a random selection process where employees are selected and tested.  This type of test is usually done quarterly throughout the year in order to deter the use of drugs and alcohol against DOT policy.  Each DOT agency specifies a percentage for both drugs and alcohol.  The rates are specified based on the previous year’s testing statistics and suggest the percentage of workers who must be tested.

DOT Random Testing Rates:

  • FMCSA: 25% for drugs, 10% for alcohol
  • FAA: 25% for drugs, 10% for alcohol
  • FTA: 50% for drugs, 10% for alcohol
  • PHMSA: 50% for drugs, n/a for alcohol
  • USCG: 50% for drugs, n/a for alcohol
  • FRA: For covered service - 25% for drugs, 10% for alcohol; for maintenance - 50% for drugs, 25% for alcohol
  • Reasonable Suspicion/Cause:  Any employee is subjected to testing if suspected or believed to be under the influence of drugs or alcohol.  This can be on the basis of observations like employee’s behavior, appearance, speech, smell, etc.
  • Post-Accident Testing:  Post-accident drug testing is required when an employee is involved in an accident meeting certain DOT criteria.  An alcohol test is done within 8 hours of the accident and a drug test within 32 hours.
  • Return-To-Duty:  Return-to-duty testing is required after violation of drug and alcohol rules.  An employee cannot return to any highly sensitive position without being tested and may be subjected to unannounced testing at least 6 times in first 12 months.  These tests are carried under direct observation.
  • Follow-Up Drug Testing:  Follow-up drug screening is undertaken after return-to-duty.  A Substance Abuse Professional (SAP) supervises the follow-up testing for up to 5 years, determining how many times an employee is tested and for what substance.  These are accomplished in addition to other required DOT testing.

When can One Test for Drugs, Alcohol or Both

DOT drug testing requirements vary for each of the DOT testing situations.  Some require test for both drugs and alcohol, while others let you to test for just drugs and not alcohol.

For example, DOT pre-employment drug testing is needed, while alcohol testing is optional.  If an employer decides to do pre-employment alcohol testing, then it should be done all the time.  Else, there would be a concern over discrimination.

DOT random testing, the testing frequency for both drugs and alcohol is set by the DOT agencies.

Reasonable suspicion testing, testing for drugs or alcohol depends on the supervisor’s observations.  If substance use is suspected, then DOT reasonable suspicion drug test is done.  If alcohol usage is suspected, then alcohol breath test is done.  If the use of both is in question, then both tests are performed depending on the observations made.

DOT post-accident testing, both alcohol and drug testings are undertaken.

DOT return-to-duty and follow-up testing, a professional recommends evaluation and treatment phases for testing of whatever the substance use/abuse.

DOT Drug Testing Process

DOT drug testing process is as follows:

  • Donor provides the specimen
  • Collector collects the specimen according to the outlined rules
  • Lab analyzes the specimen
  • Medical review officer (MRO) verifies the lab results
  • Designated Employer Representative (DER) obtains the results from the MRO

After analysis of the specimen, the lab then sends their DOT drug test results to a medical review officer (MRO).  MRO is a licensed physician, who is trained in substance abuse.  The MRO verifies the findings before contacting the employer with the result.

If the result is non-negative, then according to the DOT drug testing requirements, the MRO should contact the donor to discuss possible medical explanations.  After the conversation, the MRO will report the result to the DER.

MRO verifies the lab results and reports one of four results to the DER.

  • Verified positive
  • Verified negative
  • Canceled test
  • Verified refusal to test

Verified Positive Drug Test Result:  This is reported by the MRO to the DER when the lab reports a positive result, and after the MRO interviews the donor and cannot find any plausible explanation for the result.  The term used frequently is “legitimate medical explanation” in the DOT drug testing requirements 49 CFR Part 40.

Verified Negative Drug Test Result:  There are two scenarios.  First, the lab reported a negative result and the MRO found no flaws in the testing process.

Second, the lab reported a positive result, but the MRO finds a legitimate medical explanation for the positive result.  This happens during the MRO and donor conversation, which is the main reason why it is part of the process.

Canceled Drug Test Result:  If the lab reports an invalid specimen or when MRO finds a serious flaw in the testing process, the MRO reports a canceled drug test result to the DER.

Also, the test may be canceled if the lab reports an adulterated or substituted test result, but the MRO finds a legitimate medical explanation for the lab’s findings.

Verified Refusal to Test:  MRO can report a verified refusal to test to the DER if the MRO finds that the donor either substituted or adulterated their specimen with no legitimate medical explanation for the finding.

What happens if fail or refuse DOT drug test?

If an employee fails DOT regulated drug test, DOT regulations require the employer to immediately remove the employee from performing any DOT safety-sensitive task.  This may also result in losing certification or license depending on the employment agreement or company’s policy.

Where DOT tests can be performed?

DOT drug testings are carried out at laboratories certified by the Department of Health and Human Services (DHH) and as permitted by the National Laboratory Certification Program (NLCP).

Additional DOT Requirements

Frequent verifications are done at DOT to ensure the records are maintained up-to-date and kept correctly.  It is the employer’s responsibility to store all drug and alcohol testing records to testify their compliance with all regulations.  By keeping these updated files, the government can ensure regulations in companies randomly testing the exact percentage required of their workforce.

Non-DOT Drug Testing

A Non-DOT drug testing can be performed to ensure a safe workplace or environment for employers not bound by the US Department of Transportation (DOT).

Non-DOT companies have the liberty to design and implement drug and alcohol testing program based on their needs.  Non-DOT companies should consider the benefits that the policies and programs give to an organization by promoting safety through banning substance abuse.  In the absence of DOT’s regulations, non-DOT companies can have their own preferences when to test their workforce for circumstances such as pre-employment, random, post accident, etc.

On the other hand, non-DOT companies could choose not to test at all.  The timing and frequency of drug testing is the employer’s choice.  They could prefer to test urine, saliva or hair or a combination of the three after taking into account relevant legal regulations and considerations.

What are the Non-DOT Drug Testing Laws?

There are few federal laws for Non-DOT drug testing, but more common is state and local laws.  Workers’ Compensation and unemployment laws also have an effect on drug testing programs.  Although most of these rules are optional, companies that comply with them earn perks.  For instance, employers earn discounts on Workers’ Comp premiums by compliance adhering to them.

What drugs can be detected?

A Non-DOT drug test consists of 5-drug, 9-drug, 10-drug and 12-panel drug test.  The most commonly used standard testings are 5-panel drug test and 10-panel drug test.  Employers use these panels to screen employees and applicants.

Drugs detected in 5-panel drug test are:

  • Opioids/Opiates (oxycodone, oxymorphone, heroin, codeine, morphine, 6-MAM, hydrocodone)
  • Amphetamines (methamphetamine, MDA, MDMA, D-amphetamine)
  • Phencyclidine (PCP)
  • Cocaine
  • Marijuana (cannabinoids)

Drugs detected in 10-panel drug test are:

  • Amphetamines (methamphetamine, MDA, MDMA, D-amphetamine)
  • Barbiturates
  • Opioids/Opiates (oxymorphone, heroin, codeine, oxycodone, morphine, 6-MAM, hydrocodone)
  • Benzodiazepines
  • Phencyclidine (PCP)
  • Cocaine
  • Marijuana/THC (cannabinoids)
  • Methadone
  • Methaqualone (Quaaludes)
  • Propoxyphene

Employers can also choose to test for prescription painkillers, hallucinogens, anabolic steroids and ecstasy.

When can Non-DOT Drug Tests be performed?

Drug testing can be conducted according to circumstances.  Types of Non-DOT drug tests are:

  • Random Testing:  These tests can be done monthly, quarterly or even annually depending on the company’s needs.  Employees are selected randomly for drug testing.  This type of testing discourages employee drug use since they are unaware when they will be tested.
  • Pre-Employment Tests:  New hires are required to pass a drug test before starting work.  The drug test helps in keeping habitual users out of workforce.
  • Reasonable Suspicion Testing:  This type of test can be utilized by having trained supervisors to spot suspicious behaviors.  Drug test can only be conducted if there is an official reason to believe an employee might be under the influence.
  • Post-Accident Tests:  Drug tests are mostly done after accidents that cause an injury, fatality or lead to a workers’ compensation claim.  It is important for the employer to be aware if the person responsible for the accident was under the influence.  It is important to specify the timing for these tests in the drug testing policy so the tests can be performed before the drugs clear out of the employee’s system.  Failing to have a solid protocol could cause to miss a positive test result.
  • Return to Duty Tests:  If an employee is permitted to return to work after having a positive drug test result, it would be a good idea to test them again to make sure they are no longer using or abusing.  This is also appropriate when an employee returns to work after an accident to ensure they are not impaired by prescription painkillers.
  • Follow-Up Tests:  If an employee is permitted to return to work after passing a Return to Duty drug test, employer may consider follow-up testing over the next year to be sure the employee does not start using again.  Several random screenings are done in such cases.

What are the test methods for drug testing?

Employers rarely use blood tests for employee drug testing because they are expensive and extremely intrusive.  Blood tests only have the ability to detect parent drug whereas urine tests can detect parent drug and its metabolites.  Blood tests have a very short detection window and a drug may not be detected after six hours of use.

Blood tests are often utilized by employers and workers’ comp in post-accident situations to know whether or not drugs were involved to benefit the investigators who are looking to discover the cause.

The three prime drug testing methods used for an employee drug test are:

  • Mouth Swab Drug Test:  Swab test is certainly less invasive, but is more costly.  This type of test identifies drugs ingested up to 72 hours prior to the test, thus making it a much less popular testing method.  However, the mouth swab tests are much more reliable for detecting current impairment with some drugs and recent drug use.

Swab tests are more widely used for random and post-accident testing.  These are more routinely used by the law enforcement agencies for post-accident situations or routine traffic stops when suspecting drug impairment.

A mouth swab is placed between the lower cheek and gum until saturated.  It is impossible to substitute or tamper with test sample since the test requires no privacy.  Employers receive the results in just a few days.

  • Hair Follicle Drug Test:  The hair follicle drug test identifies any and all drugs in the system for a period of three months, though it is most expensive of the three testing methods.  The extended detection period outweighs the added expense for employers who utilize this test.  This test requires no privacy and is over in a flash.  The collection specialist simply snips a small cluster of hair close to the scalp as possible using scissors.  The trucking industry employers require their employees to take the DOT drug test and the hair follicle test.

Drug metabolites are stored throughout the body awaiting excretion and some find their way into the hair shafts.  It takes a couple of days before the metabolites go out of the body by growing out into the hair shaft itself and this results in a permanent record of drug use.  Employers receive the results in about a week.

Detection windows for drugs:

  • Amphetamines:  1-2 days, depending on type
  • Opiates:  1-4 days.
  • Phencyclidine (PCP):  8 days
  • Marijuana/Cannabis:  3 to 30 days, depending on usage
  • Cocaine:  2 to 10 days
  • Methadone:  2 to 7 days
  • Barbiturates:  2 to 15 days
  • Benzodiazepines:  2 to 10 days
  • Methaqualone:  10 to 15 days
  • Propoxyphene:  6 hours to 2 days.

Drugs remain in the human system:

  • Urine - up to 48 hours
  • Saliva - up to three days
  • Hair - up to three months

Laboratory Testing

Regardless what testing method an employer uses, the samples first go through an initial screen.  The immunoassay (IA) test yields a positive or negative result and is cost-effective.  The specimens yielding a positive result go on for the gas chromatography/mass spectrometry (GC/MS) test that confirms the IA test and identifies the drug and the level contained in the test sample.

USA Mobile Drug Testing uses only Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) certified laboratories.  These laboratories hold the highest standards and undergo frequent inspections to retain certification.

Reading Results

Regardless which test method is used for non-DOT drug test, the results are read uniformly.

Positive – Indicates drug use

Negative – No drugs detected

Inconclusive – Determines neither a positive nor a negative result

Inconclusive results are rare in the hair follicle and mouth swab tests.  Human error on the other hand by the collection specialist or a lab technician is a possibility.  The urine test renders the most inconclusive results.  These samples can be tampered, substituted or adulterated with in some way.

Chain of Custody Forms

DOT drug tests include chain-of-custody forms (CCF) and Alcohol Testing Forms (ATF) during the collection process to ensure proper handling of tests, transfer and analysis. Non-DOT tests are exempted from using these forms though should track chain-of-custody with non-DOT drug tests. All the drug tests are processed in SAMHSA certified labs and results are reviewed by a Medical Review Officer MRO to ensure accuracy.

If a specimen is marked because of a prescription drug, the MRO will contact the donor to see if they have been provided with a legal prescription for the drug.  If it is a prescribed drug, the test will be marked “negative” and there will not be any indirect consequence.  If proof is not provided, it will be considered as “positive” test and the employer can choose to follow their disciplinary policy.

Setting Drug Testing Policy

Policies are written with all applicable federal, state and local laws.  This policy specifies in detail exactly who will be subjected to drug testing, when the tests will be performed, what methods of testing will be used, and what happens if an employee or applicant fails.

Drug testing policy must include:

Purpose Statement:  This gives the explanation of why the company does drug testing.  The purpose could be to comply with federal or local laws, meet requirements for a customer, contract or insurance carrier, or simply to maintain safety and productivity in the workplace.

Coverage:  Most state drug testing laws require policies to state exactly who is covered like job applicants, full time and/or part time employees or just those in safety-sensitive roles.  If someone is getting tested, their role needs to be listed.

Prohibited Conduct:  An employer needs to clearly mention that a positive drug test will be viewed as a violation of the company policy.  Other related activities such as possession or sale of drugs or trying to cheat a drug test would also be included as violations as well.

What Tests and When:  Employer should outline all types of testing they plan to do - whether it is pre-employment, post-accident, random, reasonable suspicion or a combination.

Consequences:  Employer should consider legal counsel to devise this section because there are many state laws that can affect the kind of discipline one has chosen.

A well-written drug testing policy can prevent a number of lawsuits and a strong drug testing program can do many things for employers:

  • Create a safe work environment for employees and customers
  • Keep habitual users off the payroll
  • Discourage current employees from using illegal drugs
  • Identify and extend help to those who are abusing drugs
  • Compliance with federal and local laws
  • Avail discounts on Workers’ Comp premiums

Drug and/or alcohol abuse causes a lot of concerns to the employers of all sizes. It can decrease productivity, lower employee morale, poor decision making, theft, disciplinary actions and even put people in danger.  By partnering with a good drug testing company, a company can mitigate risks.

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