Future use of genetic information by Australian employers

29.32 It is difficult to predict to what extent Australian employers may seek to obtain and use genetic information about job applicants or employees in the future. Australian employers already undertake a wide range of employee health assessments on a routine basis and may in future make use of genetic information as part of their pre-employment health assessments, or as part of ongoing health surveillance under occupational health and safety regulation.

29.33 As genetic technology advances, the number and accuracy of genetic tests available is likely to increase. They are also likely to become cheaper and faster to perform. Associate Professor Margaret Otlowski has commented:

Concerns about genetic screening are magnified once account is taken of future gene chip analysis and the potential for testing for a range of non-medical traits, such as aggression, alcoholism or criminality; traits that an employer would undoubtedly be keen to screen for.[27]

29.34 The financial benefits for employers of screening out potentially unhealthy employees, and of limiting potential liability for workplace injury or disease by screening susceptible employees, are significant incentives for employers to seek to adopt more wide-ranging use of genetic information in the future.

29.35 The situation in the United States illustrates the impact that financial incentives can have on the use of genetic information in the workplace. The United States has a relatively long history of using genetic information, including genetic testing and family medical history, in the workplace. One reason for the widespread use of medical testing of all kinds by American employers is that the majority of Americans rely on employer-provided health insurance. As health insurance costs rise, employers are more likely to use health screening, including genetic screening, to reduce those costs.

29.36 A survey by the American Management Association provides some guidance as to the current use of genetic information by United States employers. The Association conducts an annual survey of its 10,000 member companies, representing one quarter of the United States workforce. In its 1999 survey of 1,054 employers, less than 1% reported genetic testing for pregnancy and sickle cell anaemia; 4.3% reported genetic testing for breast or colon cancer; and 16.7% reported genetic testing for susceptibility to workplace hazards.[28] About 20% of employers surveyed obtained family medical history information from job applicants, and 12% obtained family medical history from employees. Five percent of employers surveyed admitted using this information in hiring decisions, and 2% in assigning or reassigning current employees.[29]

29.37 Most Australian employers do not provide health insurance for their employees, but other factors may influence the extent to which genetic information is used in Australian workplaces. As discussed further below, the differing interests of employers, employees and the community must be considered and appropriately balanced in developing policy about the use of genetic information in employment.

[27] M Otlowski, Implications of Genetic Testing for Australian Employment Law and Practice (2001) Centre for Law and Genetics, Hobart, 9.

[28] R Jansson and others, Genetic Testing in the Workplace: Implications for Public Policy (2000), Institute for Public Health Genetics, Health Policy Analysis Program, Department of Health Services, School of Law, Department of Economics, University of Washington, Seattle, 19. However, misunderstanding of the definition of genetic testing appeared to skew the results.

[29] P Miller, ‘Is There a Pink Slip in My Genes? Genetic Discrimination in the Workplace’ (2000) 3 Journal of Health Care Law & Policy 225, 236.