Employers have a duty to intervene if it is found that an employee’s obesity is putting his or her health and safety at risk. However, you cannot go about doing this without understanding all of your responsibilities and the implications of the process. You must be aware that addressing an employee’s obesity when it is inappropriate to do so could raise a host of liability issues. If the process is not done properly, you could be liable under the Anti-Discrimination Act, the Fair Work Act, or the Privacy Act.
Increasing Obesity in Australia
Since 1995, there has been a nine percent increase in the number of obese Australians, moving from 19 percent of the population to 28 percent. In 2014-15, almost two in three adults in Australia were overweight or obese.
Being overweight or obese puts you at higher risk of a wide variety of health conditions. Obesity is especially damaging to health. It is a significant risk factor in type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, certain cancers, and some musculoskeletal conditions.
As excess weight and obesity are such pervasive problems in Australia, it’s no surprise that they are having a significant impact on the Australian workplace.
The Obesity Epidemic and the Workplace
The obesity epidemic in Australia is well-known but few of us have really thought about its implications for employee health and safety and the workplace. If a worker’s obesity is causing heath and safety issues, work-related injuries might result. Other issues might include illnesses related to obesity and consequent absenteeism that can decrease productivity.
When it is indicated by independent medical assessment that an employee’s obesity could put them at risk of injury or illness in the context of their employment, the employee must put manage the issue. This management needs to be based on an evidence-based strategy, and it is carried out by the employer helping to promote the employee’s general health or making alterations to their work environment and conditions. A risk management strategy for an obese worker could include lifestyle and health management plans and an independent medical assessment carried out by an occupational physician that has obesity expertise.
Dr. Rob McCartney, consultant for WorkCover Queensland and Fellow of the Australasian Faculty of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, has explained that obesity can lead to fitness-for-duty issues that need to be considered by employers. Worker safety and wellbeing must always be the top priority. (Read about how pre-employment testing can help here)
Things to Remember
Remember that any intervention should only be carried out if there is significant reason to believe that the employee’s health and safety is in jeopardy. The issue needs to be handled in a careful and sensitive way. You can only intervene regarding an employee’s weight if their obesity is causing his or her to be at risk with regard to health and safety in the workplace.
Weight can be a very sensitive topic for many people, especially those who are obese. It is essential that employers only become involved when it is has been determined by expert opinion that the employee’s weight could cause them health and safety concerns in their specific job and work environment.
You should be aware that trying to intervene in an obesity situation where you are not in a solid position to do so (in other words, if you do not have the opinion of an independent expert) can lead to legal liability issues in accordance with the Fair Work Act, the Anti-Discrimination Act, and the Privacy Act.
As an employer, you must keep the wellbeing and safety of your employees in mind at all times. As excess weight and obesity are a growing problem in Australia, you will need to be ready to deal with cases where it affects worker safety.
If you have any questions, or would like to discuss this further, please feel free to contact us here or on 1300 OHS RTW.
“Employers have WHS duty to manage obesity issues” (article)
“Overweight & obesity”, https://www.aihw.gov.au/reports-statistics/behaviours-risk-factors/overweight-obesity/overview