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Obesity Discrimination Law Pitfalls For Employers

Posted on Friday 18th July 2014 by Neil Andrews

It has all the ingredients of a classic media-fuelled row: a target minority, a European legal proclamation and a big dose of righteous indignation.Neil Andrews - Partner, Coles Miller

Skim the headlines and you’ll see them screaming that obesity is now officially a disability – with all the costs to society that this would involve (cue media hysteria).

Except that in reality it’s not – at least not yet. Dig a little deeper and you will discover that:

  • So far it is merely an opinion by European Advocate General Niilo Jääskinen – it has yet to be the officially adopted position of the European Court of Justice (although that could happen soon)
  • Advocate General Jääskinen was talking about cases of extreme or morbid obesity (reportedly a body mass index of 40+) – and only that it can (not must) be considered a disability
  • The legal scenario would apply only if the obesity plainly hindered full participation in professional life on an equal footing
  • An individual with a BMI of 40+ may already have conditions that would mean they were disabled.

Whether the individual concerned was responsible for their obesity is at present immaterial in the eyes of the law. The rights and wrongs of that will be hotly debated – especially by employers who may end up having to pick up the bill.

But there’s no point wasting emotion on it. Employers have to deal with the law (the Equality Act 2010) as it currently stands.

Central to that is a legal test: a person is considered to have a disability if he or she has a physical or mental impairment that has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on his or her ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities.

So in future employers may have to carry out modifications to their workplaces to accommodate the needs of these employees – such as preferential parking spaces or larger chairs and desks.

As employment law specialists, we can help you to manage the legal issues involved and comply with the law.

Do not let the headlines panic you into knee-jerk reactions. Let’s keep it in perspective. While obesity is a growing problem for society, comparatively few employees will fall into the 40+ BMI category.

Remember too that some of the people getting animated about the cost of obesity will themselves have a BMI of 25+.

Let he who is without sin cast the first stone (or kilogram).

For expert advice on obesity discrimination or any other aspect of employment law, contact solicitor Neil Andrews, 01202 673011.

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