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Obesity a disability?

View profile for Howard Robson
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The question of whether obesity is a disability was put to the European Court of Justice recently as the Danish case of Mr Kaltoft was brought.  Mr Kaltoft was dismissed after 15 years employment as a child-minder for Billund local authority, and he argued that his obesity was a factor in his dismissal.  Howard Robson, Employment Partner, here reviews the case and the implications this has for employers.

At the time of Mr Kaltoft’s dismissal four years ago, Billund local authority claimed that there was a decline in the number of children in the area, and so Mr Kaltoft was no longer needed.  Mr Kaltoft brought a discrimination claim against his former employers.  He argued that he was dismissed due to his weight following rumours amongst former colleagues that he was too obese to bend down to tie children’s’ shoes and play with them, a claim Mr Kaltoft denies was true.

In order to come to a decision, the Danish Courts referred the case to the European Court of Justice to clarify whether obesity could be classed as a disability and therefore protected against discrimination.

The Court held that there is no part of EU discrimination law which expressly protects against obesity but if obesity results from a long term physical, mental or psychological impairment which hinders ‘full and effective participation in professional life on an equal basis with other workers’ then it could constitute a disability. The origin or contribution a person has towards the disability was held to be irrelevant so obesity itself may constitute a disability.

“The outcome of this case could have a significant impact on employers,” begins Howard.  “As the decision is binding across all EU members the UK are under an obligation to incorporate this decision into National Law.  The Equality Act 2010 places a duty upon UK employers to make reasonable adjustments for employees in order to counter the effects of a disability. This means that employers may now be under a duty to make reasonable adjustments for obese employees, if their obesity has a negative impact upon their working life.”

The question will then become what is classed as reasonable.  “Reasonable adjustments may be providing larger chairs or special car parking, and there must also be protection for these employees from verbal harassment.  A suitable adjustment will be made on a case by case basis, and this could lead to further complications for employers as there may be differences in certain industries, for example, as to how a person’s weight could affect their daily work.”

Howard concludes, “With one in four people in the UK classified as obese this may place a great burden upon employers to adjust working conditions and patterns for many employees and may even open the floodgates to more discrimination claims.”

For more information on the case or if you’re after advice following a discrimination claim, you can contact the Employment Team on 02380 717717 or visit their section of the website here.

ENDS

This is for information purposes only and is no substitute for, and should not be interpreted as, legal advice.  All content was correct at the time of publishing and we cannot be held responsible for any changes that may invalidate this article.