Who's Watching Your Genes.
In February, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) filed a suit against BNSF on behalf of employees saying the company had violated the Americans With Disabilities Act. The company's genetic testing program "was carried out without the knowledge or consent of its employees, and at least one worker was threatened with termination for failing to submit a blood sample for a genetic test," according to the EEOC.
This week, in what is considered an uncommonly rapid turn-about, the suit was settled out of court, with BNSF admitting that it "tested certain employees for a genetic marker," according to the EEOC. Under the settlement, the company agreed to stop all further testing and analysis, and vowed not to take any adverse action against any person who opposed the genetic testing or who participated in EEOC's proceedings, according to the federal agency.
Exactly what the company was up to with its testing, and what it intended to do with the information is unclear.
Escher believes the company was seeking to find a genetic predisposition to carpal tunnel syndrome, thereby refuting claims that the illness was work-related. And according to the EEOC, the company was "requiring employees who have submitted claims of work-related carpal tunnel syndrome to provide blood samples, which are then used for a genetic DNA test for chromosome 17 deletion -- which is claimed to cause carpal tunnel syndrome in rare cases."
A spokesman for BNSF declined to specify what tests were being done or how the information would be used, or to verify whether the company was testing for a deletion on chromosome 17. The spokesman also declined to make a medical officer for the company available for comment.
In a statement issued after the settlement, BNSF said it had requested the tests from some 35 employees, and that about 20 had actually undergone the tests. The company voluntarily terminated the tests in February, according to BNSF.
EEOC attorney Jean Kamp tells WebMD the matter is still under investigation. Meanwhile, experts in carpal tunnel syndrome and medical genetics say that whatever BNSF had in mind, a deletion in chromosome 17 would hardly be proof of a genetic predisposition to CTS.