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The contributions of genetics and genomics to occupational safety and health

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How far away are we from genetics impacting worker health?

In an era when the biomedical community is extolling the benefits of genetic technologies and advances, the question arises whether these benefits may also have a positive impact on occupational safety and health (OSH). Historically, genetic factors have not been widely considered in OSH. Has any change occurred in recent years, or can we expect change in the near future?

Genetic factors contribute to the variable responses of workers to occupational hazardsparticularly chemical hazards and some biological and physical agents.1 Although increasingly workplace exposures are being controlled to lower concentrations, workers with susceptible genetic profiles may still be at unacceptably high risk. There is a broad range of published evidence showing that genetic polymorphisms can lead to differential occupational disease risks in exposed workers.27

Clearly, genetic technology has been useful in these studies of occupational disease and chemical exposures. The greatest contributions thus far have involved understanding mechanisms and modes of action. Detecting genetic polymorphisms can also lead to identifying susceptible subgroups in exposed populations. Nevertheless, it remains unclear to what extent identifying those susceptible can be applied in OSH. No good examples exist in which occupational exposure limits (OELs) have been based on genetic characteristics or risks in a population subgroup. Nor are there …

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