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Obesity; the big issue for employers

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As the number of obese adults in the UK increases questions have been raised about how far equality legislation extend to protect those who are classed as obese and whether or not obesity can be classed as a disability under discrimination legislation.

The Equality Act outlaws discrimination against employees and job applicants because of specified protected characteristics. Obesity is not a protected characteristic but in the recent case of Walker v Sita Information Networking Computing Ltd the Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT) confirmed that an obese employee was disabled within the meaning of the Equality Act because his obesity led to a number of long-term (at least 12 months) health problems that substantially affected his day to day life and his ability to carry out normal day to day activities.

The EAT made it clear that obesity itself is not a disability but that where it causes substantial effects on health, it may be more likely the person can be disabled.

In the case of someone determined to lose weight and it could confidently be predicted that they would reduce their weight to normal levels well within a year, any impairments caused by the excess weight would not be considered long-term so as to satisfy the definition of disability.

In the case of Liddington v Argos Ltd the claimant suffered from lower back pain, which was a result of his obesity. The claimant lost 11 per cent of his total body weight but continued to be troubled by back pain and required a lot of time off work. His employer argued that his impairment did not cause a significant adverse effect and that he should have modified his behaviour by losing weight. The tribunal disagreed, noting that he had tried to control his obesity but that it was long term. It was therefore satisfied that the condition had a significant adverse effect.

It is important that employers consider whether an employee is likely to be disabled and if they have any obligations under the Equality Act so not to unintentionally discriminate against those who may have underlying medical conditions caused or aggravated by obesity.