Genetic Future

It could have been a scene ripped from the pages of "Brave New World." Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway Co. began collecting blood samples in March 2000 from employees who filed workers' compensation claims for carpal tunnel syndrome. The company secretly conducted DNA analysis on the blood samples to determine whether the individuals were genetically predisposed to develop carpal tunnel and allegedly threatened to fire workers who refused to provide blood samples.

When the EEOC caught wind of the company's activities, it sprang into action, alleging the genetic tests violated the ADA. The railroad quickly settled the claims in February 2001, paying $2.2 million to affected workers and agreeing to halt genetic testing. The situation brought into reality what had to that point been the ambit of science fiction--a future in which companies use workers' genetic information to make decisions about their suitability for employment.

The statute does provide some circumstances under which companies are permitted to collect genetic information--such as to assess the impact of exposure to chemicals on workers. But even under those circumstances, employers must use that information only for the purpose for which it was collected and safeguard its confidentiality.

On top of the concern about collecting new genetic information, employers also must worry about information they already have. If GINA goes into effect, companies may suddenly be saddled with backlogs of "genetic information" that must be handled more carefully.

Litigation Horizon

That observation may be the ultimate upshot of GINA's passage. Observers agree that if the law goes through, companies can expect at least a temporary spike in litigation, if not a long term one.

staff Writer

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