Jobs and genetics

Congress is amply justified in its concern about plans for a new form of worker testing now underway by many of the largest corporations in the US. The testing involves the screening of a person's biological and chemical ''genetic makeup.'' The tests, insist proponents, could then be used to determine whether a worker, or prospective worker, is ''predisposed'' to specific work-related disabilities. What is particularly disturbing in all this is that, despite the lack of legal or scientific guidelines in this area, 59 major firms - all in the Fortune 500 of top US corporations - are planning genetic screening programs during the next five years. At least six firms are already testing workers.

As noted by Albert Gore, chairman of the House subcommittee looking into such screening, genetic tests pose far-reaching implications for the American work force. Some tests, such as those dealing with sickle-cell anemia, for example, tend to have a very definite racial impact. Precisely for that reason three states - New Jersey, North Carolina and Florida - now have laws barring workplace discrimination based on genetic traits. But there is as yet no law, either state or federal, barring or limiting all forms of genetic screening as a condition of employment. There is also no definitive body of case law or federal statute curtailing or limiting the types of uses that might be made of genetic examinations.

Admittedly, such industries as chemicals, rubber, plastics, etc., do face a difficult legal challenge in that they are required under federal law to provide a safe work environment for their employees. Yet genetic screening should not become a convenient substitute for establishing safety programs that protect all workers - by seeking to weed out those workers that might in some assumed way be endangered by working in a particular atmosphere. Not only are such genetic tests potentially discriminatory, but they say nothing about the very mental qualities that employers most value in the marketplace - tenacity, loyality, ingenuity, the capacity for hard work.

Indeed, given the confusion within the scientific community itself about the meaning of genetic imprints, rushing to set up elaborate genetic screening tests smacks of using such dubious ''sciences'' as phrenology to determine a person's work fitness.

The House is expected to hold additional hearings this year. It should do so as quickly as possible while planning appropriate restrictive legislation in this area.

The time for lawmakers to get on top of such a potentially serious challenge to civil liberties is now, before the bandwagon for such tests gets rolling. Meanwhile, corporations would seem to have a legitimate obligation to forgo testing until Congress has acted. In this regard, firms that say they will not begin genetic testing, such as Monsanto, deserve commendation.

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