As the number of obese and overweight people continues to rise, the implications for workplace health and safety are dire. However, it’s an issue that requires sensitivity from those addressing it. Here’s what to do.
The decision by the Fair Work Commission late last year to uphold the sacking of a 175kg fork-lift driver brought the issue of obesity in the workplace into the headlines. Obesity across the country is on the rise, which raises the question: What actions could – or even should – employers take to mitigate workplace health and safety risks and help employees?
“In Australia, with an adult population of 20 million, six million are obese, and one million are severely obese,” says Dr Nic Kormas, an obesity physician based in Camden Hospital in Sydney’s south west. “To put that in perspective, severely obese adults on average carry over 40kg of excess body weight, which is the equivalent of double the airline baggage allowance. And while some obese people are out of the workforce, many more are economically active.”
Kormas lists some areas where obese people may have issues in the workplace. Equipment such as chairs, benches or even toilets can prove unsuitable. Meal breaks and liquid intake can be affected by diabetes or high blood pressure, which are frequent consequences of obesity. Sleep apnoea (waking as many as 30 times a night) can create drowsy workers who might operate heavy machinery. And even getting to and from work can be a problem, as many obese people struggle to walk 500 metres, let alone take public transportation or drive.
Petrina Coventry (FCPHR), Adelaide University ethics professor, is worried, however, that when obesity is viewed as an ‘issue’ to be dealt with, controlled or remedied, the inference is that it is a problem and not acceptable.
“Labelling obesity as a problem, or inferring it is a disability, does a disservice to people who simply may not fit a social norm of weight or appearance. It also does a disservice to those with undoubted disabilities that are not within their control.”
Kormas agrees that HR has a role to help understand the issues that obese people face and to prevent colleagues being judgmental, not least because it will prevent people approaching HR, if they want help he says.
“Obese people can be embarrassed by their condition, and don’t ask for help at work,” says Kormas. And while alcohol or drug problems might be kept hidden, that’s not an option at work with obesity. Obese people frequently take a lot of sick leave, and so this might present an opportunity to encourage a worker to address their health issues.
If someone does approach HR and asks for help, Kormas believes that one of the best things you can do is to offer flexible working patterns to make it easier for them to attend appointments with healthcare professionals. “It takes time to deal with the medical issues that obese people have, and there’s no quick fix,” he says.
The upside for companies in helping them improve their health is that, ultimately, they will get a better return on their investment.
“Obesity is one of the major problems that employers will have to deal with in the future,” says Kormas. “It’s quadrupled in the time I’ve been a doctor. It used to be uncommon that people came into the workforce as obese, but now it’s common. The problem of ageing is something
that happens at the end of people’s working lives – but obesity is there from the beginning.”
Kelly Hunt is Get Healthy at Work manager for Konekt, a workplace health business based in Wagga Wagga. As a service provider for NSW’s Get Healthy at Work program, more than 30 per cent of their work relates to obesity.
“We’ve worked a lot with the transport industry, where there’s a high rate of obesity,” says Hunt. “Truckies are on the road a lot, and access to healthy food is an issue.” Taking healthy food with them is often the solution, and while only the bigger trucks have fridges, companies with smaller vehicles are encouraged to supply coolers and drink bottles, with Konekt providing information about what healthy food can be stored in a cooler.
Local trucking organisations have put out company newsletters with healthy recipes, surveyed which truck stops serve healthy food, and encouraged drivers to do exercises at truck stops.
Another big employer in Hunt’s area is the food processing industry. “It’s a physical, heavy, hard environment to work in, with shifts, and casual or part-time work,” says Hunt. “What do the workers do after hours? Is the only option at 9pm a vending machine with fizzy drinks and unhealthy choices?” Hunt has worked with local cafes and mobile food trucks to encourage them to provide healthy choices.
In general, Hunt feels that, to be successful, obesity issues need to be tied in with a more general health program, otherwise obese people feel they are being targeted.
Coventry says ulterior motives might be at work as a motivation for some health and wellbeing programs.
“In many cases, companies are genuinely concerned about the health and wellbeing of their employees. But, in my experience, there can also be a commercial and conforming motivation for companies to want their brand – represented by their employee population – to look healthy, energised and productive. Social norms are good for the brand.”
Starting off on the right foot works best, says Hunt, who partners with companies to incorporate health and wellness elements into their induction programs. “This helps set the tone and culture of the organisation from the get-go, when people are more open to it.”
Hunt’s advice is to tailor any program to a specific work environment and avoid a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach. For example, while a program involving some physical challenge might go down well with office workers, people whose jobs already involve a significant physical element will be less amenable.
“The key to the success of any program, though, is the engagement of both the management and the workforce,” she says.
The nanny state
Opinion is split about whether workplaces play a role at all. Coventry says: “It’s beneficial if workplaces provide support for health and wellbeing. But do they have a responsibility? I would argue no; an employer is not responsible for running your life.”
The starting point, she believes, should be fulfilling health and safety regulations, or what the company ‘has to do’. This means ensuring employees can meet the safety standards required to do a certain job.
“There is no one overriding formal regulation that stipulates overweight employees are not safe,” says Coventry, but there will be some jobs that have physical requirements that are not regulated, but are determined by other factors. Using the example of an overweight forklift driver, a company might not have the resources to buy or commission the building of an extra-large forklift, if there is an employee who does not fit in the existing model. “That becomes a commercial decision, and is often where the regulatory and moral challenges crop up in a legal setting,” she says.
Safety vs discrimination
There is always the potential for conflict between health and safety laws and anti-discrimination legislation, says Aaron Goonrey, partner at law firm Lander & Rogers and a specialist in workplace relations and safety.
“Under health and safety legislation, an employer has obligations to maintain a healthy and safe work environment, and this underpins everything,” he says. “But in the area of discrimination, the law is intended to come to the aid of those who are vulnerable. It’s a fine balancing act.”
Victoria is currently the only state that prohibits discrimination on the basis of physical attributes. While this might offer a legal route to an obese person, at the time of writing there are no relevant cases pending before a court or tribunal.
“In other states, an obese person might argue that obesity is in their DNA and so constitutes a disability,” says Goonrey. While there are no recent cases about obesity as a disability, in the case of Cox v The Public Transport Corporation (1992), it was held that obesity did not come within the definitions of “impairment” in the former Equal Opportunity Act 1984 (Vic).
Anti-discrimination legislation concerning disability, though, can’t always trump workplace health and safety issues – we won’t be seeing blind delivery drivers or frontline firefighters in wheelchairs.
“The law responds very slowly to changes in society,” says Goonrey.