Genetic profiling has potential, says NIOSH's director.

Genetics On the Job

I am a fan of the movie "Minority Report," in which a trio of seers visualized violent crimes before they happened. Armed with infallible foreknowledge, pre-crime police swooped down to arrest criminals who had not yet committed their crimes. Once locked away, they would never commit them.

While the fictional pre-crime system did not probe the criminals' DNA, its work is akin to what may someday be done with occupational genetic profiling. We can see that gene therapy will revolutionize the treatment and prevention of hereditary diseases, but how should genetic factors be used in the workplace? This is a monumental question that safety and health professionals cannot ignore, NIOSH Director Dr. John Howard suggested during his speech at this year's American Industrial Hygiene Conference & Expo.

Howard spoke positively about genetic profiling's potential, although he acknowledged the issue is not viewed that way by labor unions or by workers generally. He listed four beneficial uses for profiling: to assess a worker's predisposition to illness in general; to assess predisposition to occupational injuries in particular and possibly exlude a worker from certain assignments or exposures, even if the exposures are below government limits; to support medical surveillance of workers; and to aid research on disease susceptibility.

The problem, of course, is that predisposition is not prediction. Someone with a higher susceptibility to a specific disease will not necessarily develop the disease; environmental factors are needed before the disease appears. Workers' opposition to genetic testing may be based for the most part on privacy concerns, but this "X factor" also is part of their unease and distrust of testing.

Howard's speech at AIHCE covered seven areas of "uncharted territory," including genetics, that await exploration by industrial hygienists. This should become a field of study for the IH community, he said, and then he made a prediction of his own: The issue of genetics at work will become much more important as the 21st Century rolls on.

This article originally appeared in the August 2003 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

About the Author

Jerry Laws is Editor of Occupational Health & Safety magazine, which is owned by 1105 Media Inc.

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