Guidance on obtaining and handling information about workers' health has been published by the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO).
The fourth and final part of the Employment Practices Data Protection Code, Information about Workers Health, is intended to help employers comply with the Data Protection Act and encourage them to adopt good practice.
It addresses the collection and subsequent use of information about a worker's physical or mental health or condition.
It aims to strike a balance between the legitimate expectations of workers that personal information about them will be handled properly and the interests of employers in deciding how best, within the law, to run their own businesses. It does not impose new legal obligations.
The code covers sickness and injury records, occupational health schemes, information from medical examination and testing, drug and alcohol testing and genetic testing.
In general employers should only collect health information where it is necessary for health and safety reasons, to prevent discrimination, to satisfy other legal obligations or if each worker has given his or her explicit consent. If consent is to be relied upon, it must be given freely.
David Smith, Assistant Information Commissioner, said: "Information about people's health is very sensitive and requires effective protection. This part of the code addresses issues of real, practical relevance to many employers and those they employ.
"We believe we have set out a common sense approach in a user-friendly manner.
"Employers may have alternative ways of meeting their legal requirements under the Data Protection Act when handling information about workers' health, but if they do nothing to apply the principles behind the code they risk breaking the law," he said.
All four parts of the Employment Practices Data Protection Code will be published together in one volume in 2005.
Information About Workers Health will be available on the Information Commissioner's Office website: www.informationcommissioner.gov.uk by midday on 13 December.