The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has gone to court for the first time to stop a company from testing its employees for genetic defects, setting up an unprecedented legal battle over medical privacy in the workplace.
The commission filed a petition in federal court in Sioux City, Iowa, Friday asking that Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) Railroad be ordered to halt genetic tests on blood taken from the employees who have filed claims for work-related injuries based on carpal tunnel syndrome.
BNSF released a statement on Monday saying that it "will stop including in any employee testing a DNA factor for carpal tunnel syndrome in response to employee claims."
According to BNSF, about 125 employees have filed claims since March 2000 for carpal tunnel syndrome related injuries.
"About 20 BNSF employees completed a medical examination to support their claims," said the company''s statement. "Several employees refused to take the blood test, but none received any disciplinary action."
The railroad has more than 40,000 employees.
As a result of the EEOC lawsuit, the railroad has become one of the first companies to acknowledge having used genetic testing on its employees, according to the EEOC''s lawyers.
"This is EEOC''s first lawsuit challenging genetic testing. As science and technology advance, we must be vigilant and ensure that these new developments are not used in a manner that violate workers'' rights," said EEOC Chairwoman Ida Castro. "The commission has show that we will act quickly when confronted with such an egregious violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act as is presented here."
EEOC is arguing that basing employment decisions on the results of genetic tests, such as those used by the railroad, violates the Americans With Disabilities Act.
The EEOC alleges that the railroad requires workers who have submitted claims of work-related carpal tunnel syndrome to provide blood samples, which are then used for a genetic test.
The railroad responded by saying that, "EEOC court action erroneously asserted that the DNA test had been broadly requested of BNSF employees, when in fact, the test had been requested only in response to a limited number of carpal tunnel injury claims."
"Further, the DNA portion of the medical examination was not being used to determine the employee''s present ability to perform his or her job, as reported," said BNSF.
by Virginia Sutcliffe