5 January 2020 posted by Recovery Partners

Employers have a duty to intervene if it is found that an employee’s obesity is putting his or her health and safety at risk.  However, you cannot go about doing this without understanding all of your responsibilities and the process’s implications.  You must be aware that addressing an employee’s obesity when it is inappropriate to do so could raise a host of liability issues.  If the process is not done properly, you could be liable under the Anti-Discrimination Act, the Fair Work Act, or the Privacy Act.

Increasing Obesity in Australia

Since 1995, there has been a nine percent increase in obese Australians, moving from 19 percent of the population to 28 percent.  In 2014-15, almost two in three adults in Australia were overweight or obese. 

Being overweight or obese puts you at higher risk of a wide variety of health conditions.  Obesity is especially damaging to health.  It is a significant risk factor in type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, certain cancers, and some musculoskeletal conditions. 

As excess weight and obesity are such pervasive problems in Australia, it’s no surprise that they have a significant impact on the Australian workplace. 

The Obesity Epidemic and the Workplace

The obesity epidemic in Australia is well-known, but few of us have really thought about its implications for employee health and safety and the workplace.  If a worker’s obesity is causing health and safety issues, work-related injuries might result.  Other issues might include illnesses related to obesity and consequent absenteeism that can decrease productivity.

When it is indicated by an independent medical assessment that an employee’s obesity could put them at risk of injury or illness in the context of their employment, the employee must put manage the issue.  This management needs to be based on an evidence-based strategy, and it is carried out by the employer, helping to promote the employee’s general health or making alterations to their work environment and conditions.  A risk management strategy for an obese worker could include lifestyle and health management plans and an independent medical assessment carried out by an occupational physician with obesity expertise. 

Dr. Rob McCartney, a consultant for WorkCover Queensland and Fellow of the Australasian Faculty of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, has explained that obesity can lead to fitness-for-duty issues that need to be considered by employers.  Worker safety and wellbeing must always be the top priority. (Read about how pre-employment testing can help)

Things to Remember

Remember that any intervention should only be carried out if there is significant reason to believe that the employee’s health and safety is in jeopardy.  The issue needs to be handled carefully and sensitively.  You can only intervene regarding an employee’s weight if their obesity is causing them to be at risk with regard to health and safety in the workplace. 

Weight can be a very sensitive topic for many people, especially those who are obese.  It is essential that employers only become involved when it is has been determined by expert opinion that the employee’s weight could cause them health and safety concerns in their specific job and work environment. 

You should be aware that trying to intervene in an obesity situation where you are not in a solid position to do so (in other words, if you do not have the opinion of an independent expert) can lead to legal liability issues in accordance with the Fair Work Act, the Anti-Discrimination Act, and the Privacy Act. 

As an employer, you must keep your employees’ wellbeing and safety in mind at all times.  As excess weight and obesity are a growing problem in Australia, you will need to be ready to deal with cases affecting worker safety. 


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“Overweight & obesity,” https://www.aihw.gov.au/reports-statistics/behaviours-risk-factors/overweight-obesity/overview

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Disclaimer – these articles are provided to supply general safety information to people responsible for OHS in their organisation. They are general in nature and do not substitute for legal and/or professional advice. We always suggest that organisations obtain information specific to their needs. Additional information can be found at https://www.safeworkaustralia.gov.au/