Types of genetic information used in employment

29.15 As noted above, genetic information is a type of health information that is likely to become increasingly significant in assessing the health of job applicants and employees in the future. Both genetic test results and family medical history are relevant in the employment context. In addition, genetic samples are collected by some employers for identification purposes.

Genetic test results

29.16 There are several situations in which an employer might seek to obtain genetic test results from a job applicant or employee. These include requiring diagnostic or predictive genetic testing as part of pre-employment medical examinations, or as part of an ongoing health surveillance program. Alternatively, an employer might ask a job applicant to disclose existing results of diagnostic or predictive genetic tests. Such tests may have been undertaken for health related reasons or through participation in a population screening or medical research program.

29.17 The Inquiry is not aware of any routine genetic testing currently conducted by Australian employers, although the Inquiry received some evidence of occasional use, for example, to confirm family medical history. United States employers have conducted genetic testing for various conditions in the past, for example in relation to the sickle cell trait.[14] Until recently, the United Kingdom’s Ministry of Defence screened aircrew applicants for the sickle cell trait in the belief that carriers were vulnerable to health risks at high altitudes.[15]

29.18 Testing may be offered on a mandatory or voluntary basis. In the United States, for example, genetic tests for beryllium sensitivity have been offered on a voluntary basis to beryllium-exposed workers. Individuals with a particular genetic mutation are at an increased risk of developing chronic beryllium disease when exposed to the chemical. The condition is potentially fatal.[16]

Family medical history

29.19 In addition, or as an alternative to requesting genetic test results, an employer might ask a job applicant or employee to disclose information about his or her family medical history, which is a form of genetic information. Family medical history is routinely collected during general medical examinations and the Inquiry received some evidence of this occurring in the employment context.

Genetic samples

29.20 Employers may also seek access to employees’ genetic samples. In the United Kingdom, police officers are requested to supply genetic samples for the Police Elimination Database, which is used to eliminate officers’ genetic material as contaminants at crime scenes. By May 2002, over 56,000 DNA samples had been provided. It has been proposed to make the supply of a sample a condition of entry to the police force.[17]

29.21 The United States Department of Defense also collects genetic samples from every service member on active duty or in the reserve armed forces on a mandatory basis. The samples are collected for the purpose of identifying the remains of personnel who are killed on active duty. The samples are stored in the Department’s DNA Repository for a period of 50 years but may be destroyed at the request of the donor when he or she leaves the military.[18]

[14] See J Crespin, ‘Genetic Screening in the Workplace for Sickle Cell Trait: A Dangerous Tool’ (1992) 30 Medical Trial Technique Quarterly 91; J Seltzer, ‘The Cassandra Complex: An Employer’s Dilemma in the Genetic Workplace’ (1998) 27 Hofstra Law Review 411, 418–420; K Brokaw, ‘Genetic Screening in the Workplace and Employers’ Liability’ (1990) 23 Columbia Journal of Law and Social Problems 317, 322–326.

[15] Human Genetics Commission, Inside Information: Balancing Interests in the Use of Personal Genetic Data (2002), London [8.8].

[16] G Marchant, ‘Genetics and Toxic Torts’ (2001) 31 Seton Hall Law Review 949.

[17] Human Genetics Commission, Inside Information: Balancing Interests in the Use of Personal Genetic Data (2002), London [8.9].

[18] E Reiter, ‘The Department of Defense DNA Repository: Practical Analysis of the Government’s Interest and the Potential for Genetic Discrimination’ (1999) 47 Buffalo Law Review 975, 983–984. For more information about the DNA Repository see A Stevens, ‘Arresting Crime: Expanding the Scope of DNA Databases in America’ (2001) 79 Texas Law Review 921.