The growing controversy over chemical hazards in the workplace has sent many companies hunting for cost-effective ways to reduce the risk to workers. One method that has begun to get attention is genetic screening, whereby employers would use blood tests to spot the workers who run the greatest risk of developing a chemical-related illness. Such workers would not be employed in areas where the chemicals in question arc being used.

The technology still in its infancy, could offer significant benefits to smaller companies, since the cost of a screening program would be relatively low -- provided of course that it ever becomes commercially available. Ironically, genetic screening has stirred up a controversy of its own. Indeed, some observers are beginning to question whether the cure might not be worse than the disease.

"We see it as a new idea, a new technology that has potential for good," says Joe Velasquez, executive director of the Workers' Institute for Safety and Health (WISH) "But unless it is used properly, it could cause great harm to society and individuals."

The debate centers on the concern that the technique could be used as a tool for discrimination. "The main issue with genetic screening," says Mark A. Rothstein, a professor at West Virginia University College of Law, "is that the tests have a marked effect along racial and ethnic lines." He says, for example, that if the sickle-cell anemia trait were to be found to increase the risk of acquiring an occupational disease, the number of blacks denied jobs in certain industries would be higher than it would be for other groups. Adds Dan C. Edwards, director of health and safety for the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers International Union, "We could have a whole subculture of unemployable people if [screening is] carried to the full extent."

Another fear is that the use of genetic screening could reduce the impetus to actually remove potential hazards from the work environment. "Genetic screening could easily become a smoke screen for blaming the victim, instead of cleaning up the workplace," says WISH's Velasquez. "We're all for increased technology in disease control," he adds, "but our primary concern is for a clean workplace." In addition, some groups fear that genetic screening may be used before it is fully tested and understood. Last year, the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) published a hefty report concluding that current methods for conducting genetic screening don't meet established scientific criteria. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) is currently conducting research on genetic-toxicology monitoring, an older, more established form of genetic testing. In monitoring, workers exposed to hazardous substances are tested periodically to detect early signs of genetic or chromosomal damage. NIOSH is studying the effects of exposure to ethylene oxide and ethylene dibromide. Warns Thendore J. Meinhardt, a NIOSH research official, "We wouldn't recommend screening of workers at this stage. The benefits would be blocked if used too early and without sufficient knowledge." There is, in fact, little danger of genetic screening being used at all in the very near future. One company, General Molecular Applications Inc. of Columbus, Ohio, is testing a genetic screening system, but GMA chairman Philip Lipetz doesn't expect to begin marketing the technology until the mid-1980s. And the OTA study was able to find just six companies involved in any sort of genetic testing. Among those that are using genetic tests -- such as Johnson & Johnson and E. I. du Pont de Nemours & Co. -- none so far appears to be using them in making job decisions.

Nevertheless, the controversy is likely to intensify in the years ahead. "Occupational liability is becoming a much bigger concern to employers," says an aide to Rep. Albert Gore Jr. (D-Tenn.), who initiated the OTA study. Thus, he says, "there is enormous incentive" for companies to pursue genetic testing. "It has the potential to become one of the most explosive issues in industrial relations over the next decade."