Being severely overweight – classified as having a body mass index of more than 30 – could be considered a disability if it affects an employee’s ability to work, European judges have ruled.
The judgment by the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg, which is now binding across the EU, is designed to protect obese employees from discrimination at work because of their weight.
The judges said that, although being overweight was not in itself a disability, any long-term impairment caused by obesity – such as reduced mobility – should be protected by disability laws.
The ruling is the latest step in the landmark case of Karsten Kaltoft, a 25-stone Danish childminder, who claimed that he was sacked by his employers four years ago after 15 years’ service because he had become too large. Reports suggested that his size meant that he could no longer reach down to tie a child’s shoelaces, accusations which he denied. But his former employer, Billund city council, disputes Mr Kaltoft’s account, claiming that he was dismissed because there was no longer enough work to justify his employment.
At the time the case was first heard in Denmark, Mr Kaltoft said that his weight had no impact on his ability to be a good childminder. “I can sit on the floor and play with them, I have no problems like that. It’s not OK just to fire a person because they’re fat, if they’re doing their job properly,” he said.
The Danish courts referred the issue to the European Court of Justice to clarify whether obesity could be considered a disability.
The court ruled in favour of classing obesity as a disability in some cases, and it is now up to Denmark’s national court to decide if Mr Kaltoft’s case falls under that ruling. But the judgment has a much wider impact, with employers across Europe now expected to consider and accommodate employees who find their weight affects them at work.
The court stated obesity could be considered a disability if it “hinders the full and effective participation of the person concerned in professional life”.
Audrey Williams, a partner at law firm Eversheds, said British companies may find that obese employees may be emboldened by the new rules, and come forward requesting changes to their working environment. Staff who require a certain level of fitness for their role, but who become obese during their employment, may have to be considered for redeployment into a different job.
However, campaigners are also concerned that the ruling could actually make things more difficult for larger people at work. Tam Fry, spokesman for the National Obesity Forum, said the ruling had opened “a can of worms for all employers”.
“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,” he said. “This is the closest I’ve seen to the law being an ass.”
What the ECJ decision could mean
The ECJ ruling means obesity must be treated in the same way as any other disability if it results in an impairment which affects the way a member of staff does their job. Organisations will be expected to make “reasonable” adjustments to accommodate staff.
Changes could include the introduction of wider desks, bigger car parking spaces and more easily accessible fire escapes. Managers may also have to consider requests to work flexibly to help obese employees avoid the pressure of rush-hour commuting.