Current use of genetic information by Australian employers

29.22 The Inquiry is not aware of statistical information indicating the extent to which Australian employers make use of genetic test or family medical history information. The Inquiry is not aware of any routine genetic testing by Australian employers, although the Inquiry did receive submissions documenting occasional use of genetic testing and more routine use of family medical history. Much of this information was collected in the context of complaints and studies of discrimination on the basis of genetic status in employment, as discussed in Chapter 30.[19]

29.23 Mandatory pre-employment genetic testing has, however, been considered in at least one situation in Australia. In 2001 it was reported that the Professional Boxing and Martial Arts Board of Victoria had proposed the testing of all professional boxers as a condition of their licence to fight in Victoria. The boxers were to be tested for a genetic mutation that made them more susceptible to ‘punch drunk syndrome’. The Board was reportedly concerned that it could be held liable for damages if it allowed boxers with a genetic predisposition to this condition to fight.[20] This issue is discussed in Chapter 38.

29.24 In consultations, the Department of Defence indicated that family medical history is routinely collected from applicants to establish their fitness to serve in the defence forces and that some applicants are rejected on the basis of that information.[21] The Department indicated that if an applicant’s medical report includes a family medical history of Huntington’s disease, the applicant is likely to be rejected unless a genetic test indicates that the applicant does not have the relevant genetic mutation.

29.25 In relation to multifactorial conditions, the Department of Defence indicated that family medical history sometimes prompts follow up investigation but is not used in isolation to exclude applicants. The Department was of the view that a comprehensive assessment of health status and risks is important because all defence force personnel are required to be deployable, including in harsh conditions with limited medical facilities. A high premium was placed on ensuring that missions would not be impaired by the ill-health of defence force personnel. The Department indicated that, while cost and lack of predictive accuracy meant that genetic testing was not widely used at present during recruitment, this might change in the future.[22]

29.26 The use of family medical history in this way is not limited to the defence forces. In one reported case, an 18 year old male with a family history of Huntington’s disease applied for acceptance into the public sector. His general practitioner noted the family history of Huntington’s disease in his medical report. The man was told that he would only be employed if he undertook a genetic test that showed that he did not have the relevant genetic mutation.[23]

29.27 The collection of genetic samples for the purposes of identification is also occurring in Australian workplaces. The Tasmanian Police Service, for example, collects genetic samples from police recruits for use in eliminating their genetic material as possible contaminants at crime scenes. The Tasmanian Police Commissioner has proposed to expand the program to all operational police and to establish a DNA database for police profiles. The Commissioner has indicated that if police do not provide samples voluntarily he will ask the Tasmanian government to implement legislation making it compulsory to provide them.

29.28 The Police Association of Tasmania has opposed the plan, expressing the concern that, once obtained, the samples might be used for other purposes, such as predictive health testing. The Police Federation of Australia (PFA) is also opposed to legislation making the provision of a genetic sample compulsory. The PFA is of the view that this is a breach of the civil liberties of police officers and noted in its submission to the Inquiry that police officers are not the only workers who routinely attend crime scenes. The PFA stated that, if police officers regularly contaminate crime scenes, this is a training issue and should be addressed as such.[24]

29.29 Section 22 of the Criminal Investigation (Identifying People) Act 2002 (WA) permits the Western Australian Commissioner of Police to require police officers to supply a DNA sample. However, in consultations the Commissioner of Police indicated that this power had not yet been exercised.[25]

29.30 The Inquiry understands that the Australian Defence Force is currently considering whether to implement a policy of collecting genetic samples from members of the defence force for identification purposes. In consultations, the Department of Defence indicated that mandatory collection of genetic samples is unlikely to be considered without appropriate mechanisms for protecting the privacy of the information held. At present, a pilot program is under development for the collection of samples for identification purposes on a voluntary basis.[26]

29.31 There is still considerable uncertainty about the nature and extent of the use of genetic information in the context of employment and there is a need for further detailed empirical research. Associate Professor Margaret Otlowski, Dr Sandra Taylor and Dr Kristine Barlow-Stewart have established the Genetic Discrimination Project Team, funded by the Australian Research Council, and are conducting research into the nature and extent of genetic discrimination in Australia. The project team’s work is due to be completed in 2004 and may provide a more complete picture of the use of genetic information in the workplace.

[19] See K Barlow-Stewart and D Keays, ‘Genetic Discrimination in Australia’ (2001) 8 Journal of Law and Medicine 250.

[20] J Robotham, ‘Pro Boxers Face Going Down for the Gene Count’, The Sydney Morning Herald, 1 June 2001.

[21] Department of Defence, Consultation, Canberra, 6 November 2002.

[22] Ibid.

[23] S Taylor, ‘A Case Study of Genetic Discrimination: Social Work and Advocacy Within a New Context’ (1998) 51(4) Australian Social Work 51, 53.

[24] Police Federation of Australia, Submission G253, 20 December 2002.

[25] Western Australia Police Service, Consultation, Perth, 28 October 2002.

[26] Department of Defence, Consultation, Canberra, 6 November 2002.