A person’s weight is a sensitive issue at the best of times, and it’s something that many will conclude is personal and has nothing to do with work. But overweight employees can have a significant impact on workplace health and safety, not to mention a drain on the worker’s compensation system.
Obesity in Australia is increasing at the second highest rate in the world, according to the most recent figures, with half of all Australians who are overweight being classified as obese. With more and more people getting fatter and fatter, a ruling by the Fair Work Commission last week may be, dare we say, a growing trend.
A worker who was stood down from his job with pay and told to lose weight so that he could safely perform his tasks, was then sacked after he gained 10kg. The man’s claim for unfair dismissal has been rejected by the FWC, who says that it was reasonable for the employer, Parmalat Australia Ltd, to rely on an occupational physician’s assessment rather than on medical certificates from the man’s doctor claiming that he was fit for work.
The issue hinged on the man’s weight (165kg) and associated medical issues that were preventing him from operating forklifts because of the seat’s maximum weight safety ratings.
The case follows another in June when a morbidly obese mine worker lost his right to compensation from BHP Coal after he had been off work for two years with weight problems and associated psychological issues, and was then sacked. The mining company told the Queensland Industrial Relations Commission that the man’s obesity posed a risk to himself and others at the mine where he worked as a shift supervisor. Over the course of two years, BHP had paid more than $40,000 in doctors’ bills for the man – who had previously rejected a $300,000 payout under a separation agreement.
It’s clear from these two cases that while obesity is obviously a problem for an individual’s health and happiness, it’s also of concern to an employer. An Australian government report titled Overweight and Obesity: Implications for workplace health and safety and workers’ compensation from 2008 listed the key issues for workplace health and safety as:
- Obese workers are more likely to take sick leave and be less productive;
- Due to being unfit, obese people will take longer to recover with higher medical costs and more expensive worker’s compensation claims;
- Overweight employees find it more difficult to perform tasks, especially physical tasks, due to impaired mobility and flexibility;
- Standards relating to the design of working environments, plant and equipment need to change to reflect the current and predicted weight and dimensions of workers; and
- Obesity contributes to an increase in workplace musculoskeletal injuries.
With many individuals seeming incapable of losing weight and governments either powerless or unwilling to address the problem, should business be playing a bigger role? In the end, businesses might be forced to act if the obesity epidemic starts to impact on the bottom line with losses in productivity.
For those in need of some ideas on how to get a workforce motivated, implementing a formal wellness program is probably top of the list. Benefits include weight reduction, increased stamina and reduced stress. Other suggestions are to run weight loss contests as a fun way to challenge employees to see who can shed the largest number of pounds. Smartphones offer multiple apps to track calories. You might also start a lunchtime walking group or after-hours team sport that can support all body types.
Employers can set the tone for healthy food choices in the workplace by collaborating with a resource or service that assists with weight loss. Offering worksite location meetings and support groups, as well as online choices, is another option for connecting employees with registered dieticians. Typically, no referral is needed to see a dietician, and they can customise a diet plan with realistic calorie counts, goals and expectations. If you have a cafeteria, ensure it offers healthy food choices. Listing the nutritional information of daily specials can help educate employees on their food options.