The Genomics Revolution Comes Calling

It brings 'enormous potential' for benefits, but also abuse.

GENETIC screening done for occupational reasons is a potentially explosive issue. It burned Burlington Northern Santa Fe Corp., which agreed to pay $2.2 million three years ago to employees it had secretly tested. But we're seeing no headlines now: Is the issue settled? Hardly.

The American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine posted a new position statement on this subject last fall because it foresees extensive workplace use of genetic screening. "We're observing it unfold. There's a great deal of activity behind the scenes that really hasn't broken through to general visibility," said Dr. Tee L. Guidotti, MD, MPH, who is scheduled to take office next month as ACOEM's president. "We see [the tests] coming. And we think the time to prepare and have legal and ethical guidelines is now."

The policy was developed by ACOEM's Ad hoc Committee on Genetic Screening of the Council on Scientific Affairs and approved by the ACOEM Board of Directors on Oct. 27, 2005. It takes into consideration a new generation of tests and seeks to get ahead of the curve of the genomics revolution. ACOEM wants ground rules established because occupational physicians will be administering the medical examinations that precede the screening, he said during a recent interview in which he cited screening's "enormous potential for abuse, enormous potential for good."

Research into the current state of the art is needed and ACOEM will assist, although it does not see this effort happening yet, said Guidotti, who chairs the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health at George Washington University Medical Center's School of Public Health and Health Services in Washington, D.C. He is also professor of Occupational and Environmental Medicine and acting director of the Center for Risk Science and Public Health at GWU. "We think this issue is coming in under the radar," the president-elect summed up.

ACOEM's statement says genetic screening ought to be performed on current or prospective employees "when it is clear that the genetic trait directly affects job performance, when the trait being screened for predisposes a worker to a significant, consistent adverse outcome following an otherwise acceptable workplace exposure, or when done as part of a medically confidential general health assessment offered to employees." It says employees should be informed of the screening, have the option to decline non-job-specific screening, receive the test results, and be guaranteed the results won't be disclosed to others without their consent.

This column appeared in the April 2006 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

This article originally appeared in the April 2006 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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