USA: Senate backs ban on genetic discrimination at work

The US Senate has voted with an overwhelming majority to approve legislation that would prohibit companies from using genetic test results to make employment decisions, deny health coverage or raise insurance premiums.

After nearly 8 years of negotiations, the bill - which has the support of the Bush administration - will now move forward for consideration by the House of Representatives.

The measure would bar insurers from requiring genetic tests, from obtaining test results, and from using the results of tests to increase insurance premiums or deny coverage.

Employers would be barred from seeking most genetic information, and from using any such information to influence hiring or promotion decisions.

Employers could, however, require testing to monitor potential ill effects from workplace exposure to hazardous substances. Last month, a report from TUC and campaign groups called for genetic discrimination to be outlawed in UK workplaces.

Similar calls have been made by unions in Australia and elsewhere.

Risks 128, 18 October 2003

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Unions say nothing justifies workplace gene screening
Unions say nothing justifies workplace gene screening
Europe's top union body has called for a ban on genetic screening in the workplace. The ETUC position was spelled out at a 29 October workshop, where it called for the prohibition to be included explicitly in a European Commission directive on the protection of workers' personal data. ETUC said gene testing wasn't yet a problem in EU workplaces and said EC legislators should make sure this remains the case.

Risks 130, 1 November 2003

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BRITAIN Work is no place for genes prejudice

The law needs to be changed to prevent employers from refusing people jobs on the basis of genetic test results, campaigners have warned. TUC has teamed up with GeneWatch UK and the British Council of Disabled People (BCODP) to call for legal measures to block genetic discrimination at work. A new GeneWatch report, Genetic testing in the workplace, reveals that genetic tests cannot accurately predict which workers will suffer future disability or illness. Despite this, many employers wish to use genetic test results and many research projects are seeking to identify people who are "genetically susceptible" to workplace hazards. It adds that workplace hazards affect everyone - not just people with "bad genes" - so the remaining workers would still be at risk.

Risks 125, 27 September 2003Genetic testing in the workplace, a report by GeneWatch UK [pdf format] • Employers' viewpoint: Testing times: Directors' views on health testing at work. Institute of Directors, August 2000 [pdf format]

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actu logoHands off our genes!

Australia's unions say employers should 'be prohibited from requiring, requesting, collecting or disclosing information derived from genetic testing of current or potential employees.' In a submission to an official commission of enquiry, union federation ACTU says: 'Although sometimes justified in terms of protecting workers' health and safety at work, the ACTU submits that this is an inversion of the fundamental principles; employers are responsible for providing employees with a safe and healthy workplace, while work-related illnesses and injuries are caused by hazards in the workplace, not by employees' genetic make-up.' It adds that 'the focus in workplace health and safety needs to be on hazard removal, not on a mathematical calculation of risk based on genetic testing.'

ACTU Australia, 19 January 2002
Risks 37

ACTU Response Into Protection Of Human Genetic Information Discussion Paper 66

ACTU Submission On Protection Of Human Genetic Information

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tuc logoBan unfair screening

TUC says "we oppose susceptibility screening as this will remove the emphasis on an employer's legal duties to make the workplace safe for all." The new report says "first and foremost employers must provide a safe working environment... this type of genetic screening is about eliminating the worker rather than the hazard which is simply unacceptable." TUC Britain, 19 January 2002

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eeoc logoGene tests for strain susceptibility "illegal"
The US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has told Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad that its use of secret genetic testing of some employees violated federal law. An EEOC official said Burlington Northern broke the Americans with Disabilities Act by treating employees with carpal tunnel syndrome as disabled and then discriminating against them. EEOC's regional director in Milwaukee, Chester V. Bailey, said Burlington Northern had acted "with malice or reckless disregard" for the rights of workers. The Washington Post reports that at least a dozen employees who were tested are still negotiating a compensation settlement with Burlington Northern. Bailey asked the railroad and the workers to negotiate a settlement to their dispute. If the railroad declines to negotiate or can't reach a settlement, the EEOC could sue on behalf of the employees or let the workers file their own lawsuit. The US federal disabilities law generally limits punitive damages to $300,000 per worker.
USA, 28 July 2001
EEOC press release
Risks 12

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Official UK working group says "no" to gene screening
A UK Health and Safety Commission working group concluded genetic science was not yet far enough advanced to use genetic screening as a reliable and accurate predictor of a predisposition to occupational ill health; genetic screening has the potential to be applied by employers as a technique for assessing suitability for a job but is currently very rarely used. This is likely to remain the case for many years; the use of genetic monitoring could not yet add anything reliable to existing workplace health screening and surveillance practices; given current knowledge, the existing legal framework on health screening and surveillance, supported by guidance, provides sufficient protection for workers against risks arising at work. The aim should remain to fit the job to the worker; and the wider ethical debate about the efficacy of GSM has to come to fruition first before further consideration needs be given to the implications for health and safety.

HSE Health Directorate Genetic Screening and Monitoring webpage

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