More MS news articles for February 2001

Government Sues Railroad for Tests

Friday February 9 6:33 PM ET
By GREG TOPPO, Associated Press Writer

WASHINGTON (AP) - In the first federal case of its kind, the government sued Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad on Friday for requiring genetic testing of employees who file claims for certain work-related hand injuries. The policy violates workers' civil rights, the lawsuit said.

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission asked that the railroad end the testing of workers who make claims for carpal tunnel syndrome. The lawsuit said the employees were not asked to consent to the tests and at least one worker who refused to provide a blood sample was threatened with losing his job.

It is the first time the commission has challenged such tests, which it said violate the Americans With Disabilities Act, chairwoman Ida L. Castro said.

"As science and technology advance, we must be vigilant and ensure that these new developments are not used in a manner that violates workers' rights," Castro said in a statement.

The railroad tested the samples for Chromosome 17 deletion, the commission said. Some studies have suggested that would predispose a person for some forms of carpal tunnel syndrome.

The condition and related injuries caused by repetitive hand motions are the leading workplace occupational hazard, according to the National Academy of Sciences (news - web sites).

Dick Russack, spokesman for the railroad, said the company does ask employees who file disability claims for the condition to undergo genetic testing, which he said could show that the injury was not work-related. But he denied that anyone had been disciplined or threatened for refusing.

"If somebody doesn't want to take the test, fine. There is no disciplinary action for refusing," he said.

The company began the testing program last year on the advice of its medical department, Russack said. About 20 people, less than 10 percent of those claiming the disability, have been tested, he said.

The company was caught by surprise by the lawsuit, he said. "They usually ask for a meeting or mediation."

The lawsuit, filed in federal court in Sioux City, Iowa, asks that the Texas-based railroad end its nationwide policy of requiring employees who have submitted claims of work-related carpal tunnel syndrome to provide blood samples.

The commission said the blood tests violate workers' "most intimate privacy rights" and are "an invasion of privacy and a person's bodily integrity."

"A person who has been forced to give blood will never be made whole, and genetic information that is revealed can never be concealed," the lawsuit said.

Basing employment decisions on DNA testing violates the Americans With Disabilities Act, in part because the exam is not job-related or "consistent with business necessity," said commissioner Paul Steven Miller.

"Any test which purports to predict future disabilities, whether or not it is accurate, is unlikely to be relevant to the employee's present ability to perform his or her job," Miller said in a statement.

Four unionized workers - three from Nebraska and one from North Dakota - charged the railroad with discrimination, also alleging that the railroad required them to submit lists of all family members who had been diagnosed with carpal tunnel syndrome. Complaints were also filed on behalf of members of the Brotherhood of Maintenance of the Way in Nebraska and Minnesota.

Burlington Northern Santa Fe operates one of the largest rail networks in North America. It stretches 33,500 miles and covers 28 states and two Canadian provinces.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (news - web sites) says that each year 1.8 million workers have musculoskeletal injuries related to working conditions. OSHA says 600,000 people miss work because of them.