According to the European Court of Justice judgment, if obesity could hinder “full and effective participation” at work, then it may count as a disability.
The ruling comes after the landmark case of a Danish childminder who was believed to be so fat he was unable to tie his own shoelaces, and was made redundant four years ago.
According to the World Health Organisation, whose definition was relied upon in court, a person is obese if their body mass index (BMI) is over 30.
The ruling has already raised serious concerns about the impact on employers in the UK, who may now need to take extra steps to cater to the needs of obese staff such as wider car parking spaces and changes to seats, desks and fire escapes.
Earlier this year, The Scotsman revealed how oil firms may have to charter boats or bring in larger helicopters to accommodate overweight workers following a Civil Aviation Authority review.
From April 2015, helicopters will have new windows which personnel will have to be able to demonstrate they can fit through in the event of ditching.
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Some reports had claimed that overweight oil workers could be prevented from working if they cannot fit, but the new ruling may now place the onus on firms to make the necessary changes.
Dr Alix Thom, Oil and Gas UK employment and skills issues manager, said “any great impact” on the industry would be in addition to workers already having to pass industry specific medicals and survival training.
She added: “It is important to note that the judgment made by the Court of Justice of the European Union says that obesity can constitute a disability in certain circumstances but is not automatically a disability. If an individual is classed as having an obesity-related disability then employers will have to consider reasonable adjustments.”
Matthew Elliott, chief executive of Business for Britain, which campaigns to change the terms of the country’s EU membership, said: “This ruling could place a huge burden on UK businesses, with employers forced to pick up the bill for the increased waistlines of their workforce.
“This is yet another example of a decision by an EU court with no thought for the consequences or impact on business.”
The case was brought by Karsten Kaltoft, who had been a childminder for 15 years when he was made redundant by the Municipality of Billund local authority, in Denmark.
He is believed to have weighed more than 25st (159kg) at the time. The council said it was making redundancies based on a decrease in the number of children who required the service, and did not disclose whether Mr Kaltoft’s size played any part in its decision to let him go.
National Obesity Forum spokesman Tam Fry said: “This has opened a can of worms for all employers in this country. They will be required to make adjustments to their furniture and doors and whatever is needed for very large people.
“I believe it will also cause friction in the workplace between obese people and other workers.”
Claire Dawson, employment lawyer at Slater & Gordon, said the ruling “should encourage and support the full participation of obese people in the workplace”.
She said: “Obesity in itself has not previously been classed as a disability in UK law.
“However, where an obese person has other health difficulties that can be associated with and potentially compounded by obesity, such as mobility difficulties, diabetes or depression, these may give rise to protection against disability discrimination at work.”
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