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Rail News: Labor

Rail labor unions claim BNSF's medical reporting policy violates federal laws; BNSF asserts policy is consistent with labor laws


The Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (BLET) National Division has filed a discrimination charge with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) against BNSF Railway Co. regarding the Class I’s new requirement that workers provide information pertaining to off-duty medical procedures and non-work-related medical issues.

In addition, other rail labor unions have filed similar discrimination charges with the EEOC, and the United Transportation Union (UTU) and Sheet Metal Workers International Association (SMWIA) have asked the commission to investigate the new medical reporting policy.

Since Jan. 1, BNSF has required employees to provide doctor’s notes, diagnostic test results and hospital discharge summaries, according to the UTU and SMWIA. The policy requires all workers to notify the railroad of medical conditions or events that occur or are diagnosed while they are away from work. Employees must report medical events or conditions “even if there is no reasonable basis for believing the condition or event has any impact on the employee's ability to perform his/her job, and even when the employee's own doctor has placed no limitations on the employee's job activities,” BLET officials said in a prepared statement.

BLET officials allege the policy violates the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act of 2008 and the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as well as other federal statutes.

“Locomotive engineers and trainmen already are among the most highly-regulated workers in the nation,” said BLET National President Dennis Pierce, adding that the policy is a “blatant invasion of privacy.”

UTU and SMWIA officials claim workers' personal information is protected and BNSF has no statutory right to view the medical information. They also believe the information provided by employees likely would result in BNSF obtaining genetic information and that the policy discriminates against women who are pregnant or affected by related medical conditions.

“Each day that BNSF’s policy remains in effect, more employees face the likelihood of having their statutory rights violated,” UTU and SMWIA officials said in a joint statement. “And once an employee’s rights are violated — that is, once BNSF has been notified of the away-from-work medication condition or event and has obtained the employee’s statutorily-protected medical information — there is no way to undo the violation.”

But the requirement to report relevant medical information has been in place at BNSF since the Burlington Northern Railroad/Santa Fe Railway merger, BNSF officials said in an emailed statement, adding that ensuring the safety of employees, communities and operations remains the Class I’s highest priority. The new rule is consistent with federal law and is designed to outline a clear process that applies to all employees, while providing for “expeditious, confidential handling of fitness-for-duty reviews,” they said.

“Other railroads require return-to-work physicals. BNSF felt a self-reporting rule is less burdensome to our employees,” BNSF officials said. “Most other industries with public safety implications, such as airlines, have similar requirements.”
BNSF has identified a limited number of diagnoses and medical events that could have obvious implications for workplace safety, depending on the severity, such as heart disease or any heart surgery or procedure, they said. The changes were implemented, in part, because some employees in the past were found to have serious medical conditions that impacted their safety, and the conditions had not been reported or reviewed under the return-to-work process, “potentially putting themselves, co-workers and the general public at risk,” BNSF officials said.

Contact Progressive Railroading editorial staff.

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