The planned changes, long awaited by the testing industry, reflect 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 businesses have already adopted alternative testing, despite criticism by privacy advocates. But others have held back, partly 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.
That could be particularly valuable in situations like investigations of on-the-job accidents, to determine not just whether an employee uses drugs but if usage occurred recently enough to be a cause.
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.
Stephenson 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, tests fewer than 200,000 workers a year. The decision about who is tested often depends on the sensitivity of their job.
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.
The proposed changes are due out "literally any day," Stephenson said. He would not discuss details of the proposals before their release.
Changes would not likely go into effect until early next year, after the agency solicits public comment, finalize guidelines and prepare for the transition. Once that happens, many other employers could follow suit, government and industry officials say.
"There's no doubt about it that SAMHSA's guidelines become the standard for the industry whether you're a regulated employer or not, and so what SAMHSA does will have wide-ranging impact," said Kenneth Kunsman, a marketing executive with OraSure Technologies Inc., which makes a saliva testing kit.
More employers are already using alternative testing. But many have held back because of the lack of standards, said Laura Shelton, executive director of the Drug and Alcohol Testing Industry Association, which represents test manufacturers and labs.
Alternative tests hold appeal because their accuracy cannot be foiled with products sold to mask drug residue in urine, say company and government officials, noting that the tests are extremely accurate.
But privacy advocates express doubts, pointing to cases of police officers and others who allege false positives because their hair absorbed drugs around them, as well as research suggesting dark hair soaks up more drug byproducts than light hair.
"There's a lot that would need to be done before these types of tests, in our minds, would be sufficient to used for workplace testing," said Jeremy Gruber, legal director for the National Workrights Institute, an employee advocacy group.
The screening industry has worked in recent years to promote alternative tests.
Casino operators and local police departments were among the first to use hair testing for pre-employment screening because it allows detection of drug use over much longer periods than urine. It is also now used by employers including Kraft Foods Inc. and brewer Anheuser-Busch Cos.
"Urine tests were fallible in a variety of ways," said Alan Feldman, a spokesman for MGM Mirage, which adopted pre-employment hair testing for all its 42,000 workers in 1993. "We want our people to be sharp."
Psychemedics Corp., the largest hair testing company, has about 2,600 corporate clients and last year did about 400,000 tests, vice president Bill Thistle said.
Saliva testing has only been marketed for workplace drug testing for a few years. Companies including paper manufacturer Georgia-Pacific Corp. have adopted it.
Kunsman said the labs affiliated with his firm this year expect to process 60,000 to 70,000 workplace drug tests a month.
Government officials and testing industry executives say the new tests are less a replacement for urine screening than as additional tools in employers' arsenal.
"In different cases, one specimen may be better than the other," said Dr. Donna Bush, drug testing team leader at SAMHSA's Center for Substance Abuse Prevention.
Saliva testing, done using a swab that looks much like a toothbrush but with a pad instead of bristles, is best at detecting drug use within the past one or two days.
Hair testing, in which a sample about the thickness of a shoelace is clipped at the root from the back of the head, allows detection of many drugs used as far back as 3 months.
Sweat testing, in which workers are fitted with a patch that is worn for two weeks, is used to screen people who have returned to work after drug treatment.
By Adam Geller