EU ethics group advises against use of genetic testing in the workplace

13 May 2005

The European Group on Ethics in Science and New Technologies (EGE), which advises the European Commission, has published an Opinion on Ethical aspects of genetic testing in the workplace. The group's report considers three aspects of the use of genetic tests in this context: testing to predict the future health of employees, testing to determine susceptibility to specific occupational hazards such as chemical exposure, and "genetic monitoring" to detect any chromosomal damage that may have been caused by the employment environment. "Genetic tests" as defined by the EGE include DNA-based tests, analysis of the protein products of genes, and family histories. The report recommends that, as a general principle, recruitment decisions by employers should be based only on current health and not on attempts to predict future health; there are currently no genetic tests for common disease that have a sufficiently high predictive value to warrant their use. In general, too, employers should attempt to provide a safe workplace for all employees rather than trying to screen out those who may be particularly susceptible to a specific hazard. If a hazard cannot be eliminated, genetic monitoring may be warranted but only with the informed consent of the employee. The EGE concedes that there may be "exceptional cases" in which genetic screening of asymptomatic employees or prospective employees may be "necessary to guarantee health protection of workers or protection of third parties". Its report sets out stringent conditions for such screening, including documented validity of the test used, informed consent of the individual, and protection of the confidentiality of the genetic information itself, which should be provided only to an independent health professional and not to the employer. The EGE's report contains a useful summary of current relevant legislation in European countries, and a discussion of some surveys that have attempted to gauge the extent of employers' interest in, and use of, genetic screening.