Case: BNSF Genetic Testing

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Case: BNSF Genetic Testing

TUI University

David Pabst

ETH 501

There are a few privacies, if any, that are more intimate and sacred than the physical privacy of one’s body, especially when it comes to the genetic make-up of an individual. In recent history, the practice of genetic testing within the workplace has become more and more prevalent and one can only expect that trend to increase (Persson and Hansson, 2003). However, this rise of genetic testing within the workplace has become quite a controversial topic as is witnessed in the recent case involving The Burlington Northern and Santa Fe Railway Company (BNSF).

The case began when a 45-year-old track-maintenance worker applied for compensation after developing what he said was carpal tunnel syndrome (Schafer, 2001). After receiving claims from this and nearly 125 other workers for carpal tunnel syndrome related injuries, BNSF began initiating DNA tests to test for a specific genetic marker among its employees, many without their consent, that might indicate a predisposal to some form of carpal tunnel syndrome (, 2001 and 2002). However, when the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) caught wind of the genetic testing taking place at BNSF, they filed a lawsuit alleging that BNSF may have violated the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) by genetically testing or seeking to test 36 of its employees without their knowledge or consent (, 2002). In early 2002, BNSF and the EEOC came to a settlement and BNSF agreed to pay up to $2.2 million to the employees involved (Lewin, 2002). Now many will argue that this settlement was fair on behalf of all parties involved. However, when looking at the facts and the ethical and moral issues of the case, it is apparent that the settlement at BNSF was not fair.

In order to fully understand why the settlement at BNSF was not fair, one must consider the utilitarian aspects of the case. The first and probably most obvious utilitarian argument of the case is that BNSF’s decision to genetically test its employees is not for the greater good of the employees. Though BNSF asserts that the results of the genetic tests neither had nor ever would have any bearing on an employee’s employment status, there still is no absolute guarantee that no ill repercussion would result from a DNA test. Persson and Hansson illustrate this point well in their article, Privacy at Work-Ethical Criteria. In this article, the authors explain that it is cheaper to simply fire or not hire a worker who is at a genetic risk opposed to adjusting the working conditions and or relocating workers so that they will be less hazardous to the worker (Persson and Hansson, 2003). Naturally, if this possibility were to become reality, it would definitely affect not only a worker’s livelihood, but also that of his/her family. Additionally, with genetic testing there is a risk that employees can be singled out based on the results of their genetic status and this exclusion can have similar effects as if one were to be excluded because of his/her race, gender, religion, or age (Persson and Hansson, 2003). Again, none of these situations arose at BNSF, but what if several if not all of the employees tested were diagnosed with a genetic predisposition for carpal tunnel syndrome (CTS)? Who’s to say the situation wouldn’t have changed?

Though this is a convincing argument against BNSF’s use of genetic testing and justification of the settlement, the second utilitarian consideration presents a more compelling argument. The second utilitarian aspect of the case is that the greater good of the company is at stake and warrants the intrusion of its employees’ genetic privacy. Anytime an employee gets injured at work, it can cost the company a lot of money, not only in workers compensation, but also in insurance costs. In regards to the BNSF case, if one contemplates the fact that almost 125 employees made CTS injury...
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