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Genetic screening of staff is not for IBM

IBM yesterday became the first major employer to take a stand on DNA screening in the workplace, vowing not to use genetic data to weed out job applicants or to offer benefits to employees.12 Oct 2005

Advert: Free OUT-LAW breakfast seminars, UK-wide: Marketing and advertising on the web; and Ownership and sharing of customer dataThe announcement follows Congressional moves to regulate the use of genetic information for insurance and employment purposes.

The issue of genetic testing in the workplace came to prominence in 2001 when the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) took Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway (BNSF) to court over its practice of genetically testing employees who filed claims for work-related injuries based on carpal tunnel syndrome.

According to the EEOC's complaint, BNSF’s genetic testing program was carried out without the knowledge or consent of its employees, and at least one worker faced being sacked for failing to submit a blood sample for a genetic test.

This, said the EEOC, was in breach of the US Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which prohibits discrimination against qualified individuals with disabilities, including prohibiting an employer from seeking disability related information not related to an employee's ability to perform his or her job.

The case settled a few months later, with the BNSF admitting that it carried out the tests and agreeing not to require or carry out such tests in future.

But while genetic testing is still rare in the workplace, there are concerns that the ADA will not be able to regulate all aspects of such testing, and lobby groups have been pushing for separate legislation.

In February 2000 President Clinton issued an Executive Order to Prohibit Discrimination in Federal Employment Based on Genetic Information, which deals with genetic discrimination by federal employers. Private employers, however, may in future find themselves regulated by the Genetic Information Non-Discrimination Act, which was approved by the Senate in February.

The Act sets out how genetic information should be protected in both an insurance and employment setting. It is also hoped that it will aid genetic research by making individuals feel protected when participating in clinical trials and other research activities.

A similar measure is currently working its way through the House of Representatives, after which it must be approved by President Bush before it can become law.

IBM, one of the largest US employers, pre-empted the legislation on Monday, announcing in a memo to staff that it would not use genetic information either to screen employees and job applicants or to assess whether staff members were eligible to join benefits or health-care schemes.

Speaking to Reuters, IBM's chief privacy officer, Harriet Pearson, explained that genetic screening “has nothing to do with your employment, how good your contributions are, how good of a team member you are, so making a policy statement in this case is the right thing to do”.

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