August 28, 2011

Genetic Predisposition and Workplace Exposure to Carcinogens: Discrimination?

The intersection of genetics and the workplace is evolving; the most obvious pressure point is that possibility that employer-provided health insurance will be used to procure genetic testing, raising potential for privacy violations as well as workplace decisions that are based on the knowledge of an employee’s genetic makeup. Most often cited is the prototypical example of an employee who learns that she tests positive for the mutation in the Huntingon’s disease gene and faces the certainly that this degenerative and life-shortening disease will develop. There are other concerns for the use of genetic information  by employers. The well-known case of the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway Co. engaging in surreptitious genetic testing of employees who claimed compensation benefits for work-derived carpal tunnel led to the filing of an employment/genetic discrimination suit and settlement mediated by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) in 2001, which relied on enforcement through the Americans with Disabilities Act. The railroad was intent on contesting the workmen’s compensation claims by asserting that the employees had a genetic predisposition to carpal tunnel syndrome. The evolving field of molecular toxicology aims to link new techniques of genetic definition with classic toxicology testing, to develop a more precise profile for how chemical affect (human or other) life. Now comes a scientific report that a genetic mutation has been linked to the development of mesothelioma, a deadly cancer of the lining of the lungs, often seen in workers exposed to asbestos. There have been many claims for compensation for workers exposed to asbestos who later developed mesothelioma; this fact is often cited in the decline of many asbestos companies (e.g., Johns-Manville) who could not survive the onslaught of litigation brought by employees and filed for bankruptcy. For the law, the recent report on mesothelioma raises the specter of possible employer-contesting of workplace claims, as well as future studies to define a risk spectrum for those who will encounter asbestos.

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