Obesity in the Workplace: Your Obligations as an Employer

16 July 2018

Obesity has been one of Australia’s most prominent social issues for quite some time now. Today, employers are obliged to ensure that the physical health and body weight of their employees does not pose a health or safety risk to the worker, and the entirety of their business.

The issue

Obesity in the workplace can lead to physical restriction, higher absenteeism due to illness, work-related injuries, and thus, a decrease in productivity. For these reasons, it is in employers’ and employees’ best interests to ensure that body mass does not negatively impact upon one’s efficiency, safety or wellbeing in the workplace.

An employee’s obligation

Employees have an ongoing obligation to ensure that they are acting with care in the workplace, and in a manner that keeps themselves and their colleagues safe. In this respect, if an employee suffers from a medical condition that could potentially impact on their own, or a member of their team’s safety whilst at work, it is crucial that they report the issue to management as soon as possible.

This way, and where necessary, employers can appropriately alter tasks to suit employees’ needs, and ensure that duties that form part of the role are not putting workers at risk of illness or injury.

An employer’s obligation

Pursuant to health and safety legislation, employers are obliged to maintain a healthy and safe work environment. When upholding the obligation and managing workplace risk, it is essential that employers consider the impact obesity can have on fitness for duty, and an employee’s ability to carry out the inherent duties of their role. If an employee is unable to safely and competently perform their duties because of their weight, an employer may have a right to dismiss the employee due to the safety risk posed.

In Ranui Parahi v Parmalat Australia Ltd, the New South Wales Fair Work Commission upheld the dismissal of a 175 kilogram forklift driver, as it was found that he exceeded the forklift’s maximum weight safety limits, and suffered from severe obstructive sleep apnoea. The latter was opined to potentially pose a risk to the driver when operating mobile machinery and engaging in heavy manual handling.

Managing the risk

After identifying that a worker’s weight may be impacting upon their ability to safety carry out their role, it is essential that employers attempt to work with the employee to resolve the issue and reduce the risk, prior to taking any action relating to dismissal.

For example, an employer should consider:

  1. discussing any foreseeable safety risks with the employee;
  2. creating management plans in attempt to eradicate the risk(s);
  3. providing the employee with suitable duties in order to eliminate hazard(s);
  4. whether the worker is obtaining appropriate medical and professional advice/care; and
  5. implementing flexible working arrangements for the employee so they are able to attend all health-related appointments. 

Obligation versus Discrimination

It goes without saying that, for most people, weight and physical fitness is a very personal matter. In this respect, where a potential risk regarding work and one’s physical wellbeing is identified, it is crucial that employers approach the issue with caution, sensitivity and care.

A failure to do so may result in the employee initiating action pursuant to privacy, anti-discrimination and/or fair work legislation.

Action

It is recommended that employers act proactively before an employee commences work with their business, and that they remain vigilant throughout the employment of all staff.

Prior to an employee commencing a new role, it is suggested that employers provide employees with a detailed job description clearly setting out the requirements of each task that forms part of the position. Additionally, employers should endeavour to ensure that each employee completes a health declaration.

Depending on the nature of the business and/or role, it might also be appropriate for employees to complete a health questionnaire and a pre-placement medical examination.

In order to avoid future workplace health and safety risks, employers should also consider implementing team health incentives, and regularly check in with staff regarding their current health, wellbeing and performance.

Our talented team can assist you manage your employees and the risks their health may pose to your workplace. Contact Hentys for personalised advice and further information.